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Handel’s ‘Rodelinda’ comes to Hudson Hall

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By DAVID LEE

Rehearsing at Hudson Hall are the cast, director and musicians of “Rodelinda.” Photo by David Lee

HUDSON – Opera returns to Hudson Hall for a new production of George Frideric Handel’s Baroque opera “Rodelinda.” It is directed by R.B. Schlather whose list of acclaimed productions since 2014 would compliment the resume of of any lifetime, including the Hudson Hall staging of the Virgil Thompson/Gertrude Stein Opera “The Mother of Us All” in 2017.

Hudson Hall Executive Director Tamara Dillon writes, “Thanks to a new generation of talented artists like R.B. Schlather, opera is getting a major refresh. The creativity and originality these artists bring to their work is, in part, born out of necessity. While they have fewer resources than their elder peers, innovators like R. B. bring a fresh and dynamic approach. He’s like an earthquake when it comes to shaking opera out of its late-life crisis.” This is the first of a series of Handel operas that Hudson Hall has commissioned from Schlather.

The story of “Rodelinda” is set in medieval Italy. Grimoaldo, the Duke of Benevento, has defeated Bertarido, King of Lombardy, and taken his throne. Bertarido escaped, but his wife Rodelinda and son Flavio have been imprisoned. Grimoaldo says Rodelinda must marry him or he will have Flavio killed. Meanwhile usurped king Bertarido feigns his own death in order to devise a rescue of his family. And this is only the beginning. During a break in rehearsals on Thursday, Schlather talked about what the production means for him.

“I just love how intimate the space is,” said Schlather of Hudson Hall. “It does two things, it gets you as a viewer really up close to this encounter with live music, live performing bodies – and because of the chamber scale, it allows musicians to communicate in a more improvisatory, real-time, nimble, spontaneous way. It also adds to the excitement. You’re not going to get this anywhere else.”

A silent but all-encompassing performer in this production is the building itself. Built in 1855, Hudson Hall is the oldest surviving community hall of this type in the state.

“Mostly what they did here was hosting public lectures of a high moral character,” Schlather said. “These nineteenth-century orators would come through and lecture about morality and ethics and being a good person and being a part of your community and how can you be of service, and all those kind of things. So when I encountered this piece I thought that because it has a real strong moral message— it’s like a real domestic melodrama— I thought it would be perfect up on the stage, because it is in dialogue with the history of the building.”

Schlather added, “If some other venue had asked me to do Rodelinda, I probably wouldn’t have conceived of it this way. So it’s really specific to this building.”

The Handel Opera was first performed in London in 1725, chronologically early in the world of opera. Music for the Hudson Hall production will be provided by the early music band Ruckus, ten musicians who use ancient style instruments with which the composer himself would have been familiar. Ruckus founder and bassoonist Clay Zeller-Townson said that while they are playing the music as it was written, it is adapted for this context. “The score is Handel but there is improvisation— we are adding a lot of ourselves to it, and we’re adapting it. We love Baroque music, we understand how it works, but we want to make it speak really clearly and strongly, so that means that we might add some things that aren’t known to have historically happened, but it’s about the piece at hand.”

Director Schlather describes the story labyrinthine. “I discovered it during the lockdown of the pandemic and I thought that the emotions and the themes of it were completely contemporary.”

“To me it is an eternal story,” he said. “It is something that is happening even now in our world where suddenly your life as you know it has disappeared overnight and you’re stuck in this limbo space where you’re trying to figure out, ‘how am I going to be safe, how are my loved ones going to be safe, what’s happening to me, where do I go from here’— these kind of existential ideas. And I always try to explore those kind of eternal themes with every production I do.”

Keely Futterer sings the role of Rodelinda. About the story she said, “Rodelinda doesn’t do a lot physically, but she is the emotional barometer for the entire show regardless of what the action is. The story is about her emotional arc from beginning to end, because it’s her trying to navigate in a world completely of men, as a woman trying to maintain her power, maintain the house, ensure things for her son who is as of now the heir to the throne. So, maybe she’s not fighting swords but she is definitely the active emotional barometer.”

Sun-Ly Pierce plays the usurped king Bertarido. She said that the play echoes back to Homer’s Odyssey which has Odysseus’ wife Penelope fending off the suitors in faith that her husband will return to take the throne.

“It’s a basic story that anyone would feel related to,” she said. “A family broken apart, coming back together. It’s people coming in and forcing their will upon others and then fighting that adversity. It can be very specific as in husband and wife, or usurper and king, or it can be really general about Covid breaking up families and keeping them apart. That’s what this story is; just a family’s journey to come back together stronger than ever. And it is fun– it is music that’s maybe not your normal but it is exciting, interesting, and it is individual to each of us— to what we’ve put into this process with Ruckus. So it is us telling you a story.”

In the original opera score the parts of Bertarido and his consigliere Unolfo are scored for castrati, male singers who were castrated before the onset of puberty in order to keep their voices in the soprano range. In these more civilized times when such things are not typically done, such parts are sung by the countertenors, the rarest of singing voice types. According to Pierce, “the countertenor was this kind of engineered sound, so it transcended the kind of natural order, which is why they are usually the heroic characters.”

“Part of what is mystifying about opera,” said Futterer, “if you see it on a stage like the Met, you feel really separated from the drama that is happening on the stage, and separated from the performers. And in a space like this we’re basically in your lap, so you can gain a really, really unique appreciation for the athleticism of the art form, and also for how immediate the drama will be, because we’re basically right there.”

“And if you want to experience opera in a really visceral, intimate way,” she continued, “this is the absolute best way to do it, with a group of amazingly talented singers in the way the art form was meant to be seen— up-close opera for the people.”

“And you are getting it right from the source,” she said. “Handel is the inspiration of a lot of those (classical) composers and styles. It’s like getting right to the source of where it all started and what the original intention was, and to see how it has grown, transformed and evolved since then. It’s like getting back to opera roots.”

Performances are 7 p.m., October 20, 24, 26, 28, with 3 p.m. matinees October 22 and 29. The opening night performance will be followed by a post performance reception with the artists ($200, contribution portion – $160). For tickets and information go to https://hudsonhall.org/

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