Monday, November 15, 2010


Photos (Top to Bottom): Nathalie Paulin as Rodelinda and Benjamin Butterfield as Grimoaldo in Rodelinda (photos credit: Darren Stone, Times Colonist); Two soldiers with Nathalie Paulin as Rodelinda; A scene from Yerma; Kesinee Haney as Yerma (credit: David Lowe, Phoenix Theatres)

Rodelinda continues this week at the Royal Theatre with tickets at 385-0222. Yerma runs until November 27th with tickets at 721-8000.

1. Two new shows opened in town last Thursday night and our theatre reviewer Monica Prendergast got to both of them. Both Rodelinda at Pacific Opera Victoria and Yerma at UVic's Phoenix Theatre feature female leading roles...anything else these two productions have in common?

The two women who have the title roles in Handel’s 1725 opera and Garcia Lorca’s 1935 play both live in pre-feminist times, of course, both are married and both are striving to free themselves from a situation over which they have little or no control. Rodelinda is a queen and loyal wife who has lost her crown and believes she has also lost her husband through the victory of her husband’s brother in a civil war. Her grief is fully explored throughout the opera and she is considered to be the quintessential portrait of a loving and faithful wife. Yerma is also a loving wife when the play begins, albeit in very different circumstances. She is a simple Spanish peasant woman married to a shepherd and her grief is that they cannot conceive a child. This grief swallows her up so much that by the play’s end she commits a desperate act that makes her almost the polar opposite of the ‘perfect’ wife we see in Rodelinda. But both women are products of their historical times.

2. Rodelinda by George Frederic Handel premiered in 1725 but in fact the story in it takes place a long time before then. What can you tell us about that?

The story Handel draws loosely upon is of the 7th century Germanic tribe called the Lombards (Longbeards) who fought endlessly amongst themselves for control of Northern Italy. Handel’s opera is quite small in scale, featuring only six singing roles and no chorus, but the emotional canvas he paints on is typically operatically large. Each of the six characters is fully developed, even the servant character of Unulfo, and we hear in detail how each of them responds to the demands made to Rodelinda to accept her husband’s death and marry her brother-in-law. What we see is a society that is tipping toward chaos and anarchy at any moment, and the decisions made by these leaders will affect which way things go. Rodelinda’s decision to accept her captor’s proposal under one terrible condition is a high point of the opera, as is her joyful reconciliation with her husband Bertarido who has been in hiding. What makes the opera most interesting, at least for me, is that Handel has two of the male roles sung by countertenors, a male voice in opera that is close to a female mezzosoprano…in other words, quite high pitched to our 21st century ears. Once I became accustomed to these voices, however, I was quite enthralled with them and both Bertarido and his loyal servant Unulfo have some of the most beautiful arias in the opera.

3. And how did the POV's production live up to the challenges of a Handel opera?

Director Oriel Tomas and designer Nancy Bryant create a strong sense of a world controlled by barely contained savagery, as seen in the monumental, yet off-kilter, stone castle of a set and the heavy furs, leather and brocade fabrics worn by the characters. Characters are often being spied upon throughout the opera and are constantly maneuvering to get what they want. The cast of this production all do very well in their roles, in both acting and singing. I enjoyed seeing Victoria’s Benjamin Butterfield clearly relishing his portrayal of the usurping brother Grimoaldo and found his conversion late in the opera to be quite moving and convincing. The countertenors Gerald Thompson as Bertarido and Matthew White as Unulfo are both excellent in their roles, and Thompson’s final aria was a showstopper. Bruce Kelly as the villainous manipulator Garibaldo and Megan Latham as Rodelinda’s sister-in-law Eduige both do well with the vocal and emotional challenges of their respective roles. And Nathalie Paulin, a POV favorite, does lovely and affecting work as Rodelinda, especially in the scenes at Bertarido’s grave and when she makes her brother-in-law an offer with conditions she is betting, with very high stakes, that he cannot possibly accept. Timothy Vernon leads the orchestra with his usual flair and the Baroque music sounds as glorious as it should. All in all, another most successful production for the POV, their third Handel opera, and a strong sign that the company is becoming recognized for their commitment to this great composer’s operatic works.

4. Now turning to the UVic theatre department's production of Yerma by Frederico Garcia Lorca. I understand Lorca's poetic language can be challenging for anyone to perform, nevermind theatre do they fare in this show?

This is tough material indeed, as with Lorca’s other plays Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba and a few more. Lorca was a young radical artist who paid the ultimate price for his socialist politics by being executed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. His tragic death cut off the possibility of more great poems and plays from this passionate man who died at the age of only 38. Lorca’s plays are very poetic in form and take on a nearly mythic or ritualistic quality that often reminds me of Greek tragedy, but that also makes them pretty tough going for undergraduate theatre students. Luckily, theatre department Chair Warwick Dobson has given us a very clear-headed production of this challenging material that makes effective use of music, song, chorus and movement to help a contemporary audience make sense of a play with which many might find it quite difficult to relate. Seeing the character of Yerma as a metaphor for Spain at that point in history—struggling to bring new life (a new republic) into being but thwarted by fate (in reality the military dictatorship of General Franco)—helps us to place the story into the proper context. The production is aided by a simple yet strong set design by theatre professor Allan Stichbury and costumes (that include references to another great Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso) by the always creative design professor Mary Kerr and student Patricia Reilly. I love the use of live music in the show, the flamenco guitar played by Gareth Owen, as it helps to drive the story forward and to give the play the necessary Spanish flavour it needs. The large cast does well overall, with Kesinee Haney as Yerma reaching the necessary emotional peaks and valleys of the role very well, supported by Graham Nathan as husband Juan, Alex Plouffe as a potential rival Victor, Sarah Koury as neighbour Maria, and Hayley Feigs in the demanding role of the Pagan Woman. It may be difficult for us in 2010 to relate to the agonies of a young wife, loved by her husband, but who ends up turning on him simply because he cannot give her a child. For me, understanding what the fearless Lorca was trying to do with his art, to create serious Spanish theatre that took direct aim at the sexual and religious hypocrisy and oppression of his times, helped me to appreciate the deep power, even the profundity, at work in Yerma.

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