Opera Neo Celebrates Another Handel Rarity: ‘Rodelinda’ at First Unitarian Universalist Church

Opera Neo opened its season Friday with a bold, imaginatively staged production of G. F. Handel’s early opera Rodelinda. Based on a shard of obscure Italian history, Bertarido, the overthrown 7th-century king of Lombardy, fakes his death in a plot to rescue his wife Rodelinda and young son from the dastardly usurper Grimoaldo. This rarely performed opera is nevertheless one of Handel’s richest troves of marvelous arias cloaked in vivid instrumental garb.

(l. to r.) Charles Calotta, Emily Helenbrook & Keith Wehmeier [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Considering the caliber of Handel’s writing and the taut drama of Rodelinda’s plot, is no coincidence that the 1920 production of Rodelinda in Göttingen, Germany, inaugurated the modern revival of staging Handel operas. In more recent times, this opera has been staged at The Met (2004), English National Opera (2014), and in Barcelona (2019) and Amsterdam (2020).

Opera Neo Artistic Director Peter Kozma wisely brought back the stage director Sydney Roslin and three singers—soprano Emily Helenbrook, countertenor Keith Wehmeier, and tenor Charles Calotta—from last season’s highly successful production of Mozart’s Mitridate for this challenging Handel venture.

In the title role, soprano Emily Helenbrook combined vibrant dramatic presence with gleaming coloratura finesse in gripping arias such as “Morrai, si’, Spietati, io vi giurai” to win the audience’s complete support and admiration. To the villainous Grimoaldo, Calotta brought his tumultuous emotional range and bravura tenor command, especially in his aria “Tuo drudo è mio rivale,” an eruption of vengeful anger as frightening as it was brilliant.

(l. to r.) Eli Gómez-Bossu, Emily Helenbrook, Victor Bento, Bridgett Cappel, Charles Calotta & Keith Wehmeier [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

For the opening production of Rodelinda in 1725, Handel hired arguably the most famous castrato of the era, known as Senesino, to sing the role of Bertarido, so it is no walk in the park. Keith Wehmeier’s tentative opening aria “Dove sei” did not completely persuade this Handel aficionado, but as the opera progressed, his characterization of the deposed king deepened, and in the gorgeous farewell duet with Rodelinda at the end of the second act, “Io t’abbraccio,” his vocal allure and agility soared. Grimoaldo’s counselor Garibaldo, the Duke of Turin,  does most of the dirty work executing the dark side of the opera’s plot, and although bass-baritone Matthew Cook mastered his significant vocal challenges, his characterization lacked even a hint of sinister edge. Mezzo-soprano Bridgett Cappel’s assertive Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, brought another supple, beautifully focused voice to the complicated story, inasmuch as Eduige has a claim to the apparently vacant throne of Lombardy. A new vocalist to Opera Neo, Victor Bento displayed a pleasing, lithe countertenor in the role of Unuflo, who provided Bertarido with laudable emotional support. Eli Gómez-Bossu, a most charming youngster, laudably carried out his assignment as Rodelinda’s son, a silent role.

(l. to r.) Keith Wehmeier, Marc I. Olsher on bass, Korey Barrett at harpsichord, Peter Kozma conducting [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

The wide–and unobstructed–chancel of the First Unitarian Universalist Church allowed the 20-piece orchestra to be placed on one half of the stage, with the other half reserved for the dramatic action. The room’s favorable acoustics allowed the voices to remain in welcome balance with the composer’s colorful, active orchestral accompaniments. Under the sage direction of Peter Kozma, the orchestra delivered a burnished, exuberant account of this exciting score, and kudos to Principal Oboe Matthew Hudgens for a slew of sumptuous bravura aria descants. Sydney Roslin wisely used the aisles of the fan shaped auditorium for many entrances and exits, which subtly drew the audience into the dramatic pulse. But Roslin kept the dramatic encounters among the onstage characters in welcome tight one-on-one focus. Peter Kozma’s flexible set design depended on large moveable doors and partitions, which  cleverly suggested a modicum of privacy on an otherwise open stage. Malcom Foster’s sophisticated lighting design aptly increased the opera’s conspiratorial atmosphere with deep blue hues accenting Zoë Trautman’s dark contemporary business suits for the cast. Indeed, cutthroat politics occurs in any era under the guise of quotidian efficiency.

The opera was presented by Opera Neo on Friday, May 17, 2024, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego. It was repeated in the same venue on Saturday, May 18.


  1. Loydene Keith on May 21, 2024 at 7:06 am

    It was an excellent production. One sign of success is that in a three hour production, the time flew by. I never squirmed in my seat and the audience was attentive if not spell-bound.

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