Handel, With Care

Photo by David Bazemore
IN THE ASTOUNDING LEGACY OF HANDEL operas that now, at long last, assumes its rightful place on world stages, Rodelinda stands apart. It deals not with gods, magicians and philandering Roman generals but with humans subject to human-size emotions. Its characters fall in and out of love, even as you and I, and they sing to one another in love music more poignant, more unbearably beautiful, than you or I could ever fashion. Some of their behavior seems irrational at times: Why would the deposed King Bertarido leave his wife and child in the hands of his enemies while roaming around incognito plotting his return to power? But behavior irrational by 1999 standards may not have been so in its own time; try to straighten out the scenario of, say, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and you'll see what I mean.

Rodelinda dates from 1725, the glory days of Handel's reign over London opera; the soprano Cuzzoni and the castrato Senesino sang the principal roles -- the Callas and Pavarotti of their time. A performance at Smith College in 1931 is generally credited with awakening American awareness of Handel's operas in anything close to authentic versions; the production that capped the Music Academy of the West's summer festival two weekends ago seems to have had the same effect on Santa Barbarians. In the small and comfortable Lobero Theater, surprise and delight were everywhere apparent.

Founded in 1947 by legendary soprano Lotte Lehmann, Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West has since then produced a summer workshop and festival, ever growing and ever more cherishable. And while Lehmann herself is said to have had little use for operas composed before the time of her beloved Mozart, her place has now been taken by Marilyn Horne, that walking volcano on whose broad shoulders Handel's operas have ridden to their present high estate.

For Santa Barbara's first-ever Handelian excursion, director Christopher Mattaliano created a setting elegant but simple, marked especially by an easy managing of exits and entrances to offset the episodic nature of most baroque opera. His villains smoked cigarettes; heroes and villains brandished up-to-date handguns. James Scott's all-purpose costumes -- military getup and plain gowns -- bespoke no particular time or place. And despite Randall Behr's expectedly poky pacing in the pit, his expert small orchestral ensemble, backed by a properly placed harpsichord, gave out a fair approximation of the sounds of a Handelian orchestra.

Casts for Santa Barbara's one-per-summer operas are drawn from young professionals, assembled to absorb wisdom from the Academy's voice-program director Horne and her illustrious faculty. Nevertheless, this summer's group included an authentic star, and a sensational one. Attention focused on Bejun Mehta -- cast in two of the three performances as long-lost husband Bertarido -- who as recently as 1997, at 30 and with a happy career as a boy soprano far behind him, decided to transform himself into a countertenor and has done so with spectacular success.

Related to conductor Zubin only through distant cousins, Mehta pealed forth his tonsil-twisting melodic lines with an ease and honeyed smoothness over an enormous range that belied the brevity of his career so far. Baroque opera's musical insinuations can easily be taken as an invitation to clutch-'n'-lurch, yet Mehta onstage created a character as overpowering visually as vocally. In a cast with no one less than highly skilled, with Karen Wierzba's Rodelinda handily outlasting a couple of inevitable one-note disasters in a killer role, Mehta's work came across as pure show-stealing. He may next hone his arts of grand thievery on September 26, in the New York City Opera's first-ever production of Handel's Ariodante. The world suffers famine in the realms of adequate romantic tenors and Wagnerian sopranos; in the countertenor department -- with Mehta alongside Americans Brian Asawa and David Daniels -- the ranks are brimming and golden.

A VISION CAME TO ME LAST SATURDAY night at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater during the mostly superb performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. I saw a splendid small theater for Mozart operas and other works of similar proportion, here in Los Angeles, with no more than 800 seats, a proper orchestra pit and simple, adequate stage machinery -- something like Glyndebourne, or even like Santa Barbara's clunky old Lobero (which seats 680). The cast at the Ford, nicely backed by Lucinda Carver and her L.A. Mozart Orchestra, was almost all local freelance singers, not all of them young but most of them terrific. For this one-time-only performance, they had merged into a smooth and elegant ensemble, backed by the small chorus that goes by the interesting name of Zephyr: Voices Unbound. My vision included holding on to these fine people as the nucleus for an adventurous repertory company, the kind of project that is clearly not in the cards for the heavy spenders at the Music Center.

The performance space at the Ford has been tested in past years and proved unworkable for stage productions; the Flute was given in concert form, with the singers in black tie apparently encouraged to gesticulate and make faces. The fireworks from the nearby Hollywood Bowl went off exactly during the "trial by fire and water" scene. The singing was in German, the spoken dialogue (nicely pared down) was in English, an intelligent touch. More puzzling were the other cuts: a duet, a trio and the Priests' March from Act 2. The singers were heavily miked, almost but not quite drowning out the mellow wind playing in Carver's small orchestra. In my ideal, as-yet-unbuilt opera theater, the marvelously resonant Sarastro of Ron Li-Paz and the almost-right-on high F's of Rebecca Sherburn's Queen of the Night would need no help from the sound guys; the venerable but still valuable Jonathan Mack could tend to the last threads of his once-mellow tenor without going all red in the face. Lucinda Carver would be on the podium; this was, by some distance, the best work I have heard from her.

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