This celebration of conjugal love and family values has a relatively straightforward plot and calls for no extravagant scenic effects, which makes it both a good introduction to the formal conventions of Baroque opera and an ideal work for a touring group like Ireland's Opera Theatre Company, whose much admired production recently had a brief run at bam. The sorely beset Queen Rodelinda and her unjustly deposed husband, Bertarido, bear a passing resemblance to Beethoven's married pair in Fidelio, but Handel's husband and wife are rather more complex. For all their unswerving devotion to each other, both confront a wide range of highly charged situations created by the plotters Edwige, Garibaldo, and Grimoaldo, who themselves are hardly cardboard villains. Handel clearly responded to the predicaments of all five -- few of his other operas match this one for sustained emotional power or dramatic coherence.
A smoothly integrated ensemble effort, as performances of all Handel operas must be, the OTC Rodelinda focused squarely on the basics. The courtier Unulfo, a decorative figure, was omitted and some arias were trimmed, which tightened the action but in no way damaged or misrepresented the piece. James Conway's direction correctly put character development before theatrical gimmickry, and the rocklike austerity of Neil Irish's medieval castle established a perfect mood for the action.
In the title role, Helen Williams sang with extraordinary expressive warmth and technical precision. If Jonathan Peter Kenny seemed slightly less accomplished as Bertarido, that's only because we are spoiled in this golden age of virtuoso countertenors. As Grimoaldo, tenor Iain Paton matched Williams note for note in vocal panache, while Yvonne Howard (Edwige) and Charles Johnston (Garibaldo) were not far behind. With alert and stylish instrumental support from the New York Collegium led by Laurence Cummings, this superior Rodelinda set a standard, one that the Metropolitan will be pressed to surpass in 2003-2004 when its production reaches the stage.