Huge if true, as they say: The new production of Handel’s “Rodelinda” that opened on Friday at Hudson Hall is just the first in a series of annual Handel stagings there to come.
For the next several years, Hudson, N.Y., has the potential to become a Baroque opera destination, even for those accustomed to the rich offerings of New York City. Sure, you can catch Handel down the river in Manhattan, but regularly programmed stage works of his are likely to be found only at the Metropolitan Opera or Carnegie Hall, two cavernous spaces not exactly suited to the precision and immediacy in which this composer’s music thrives.
Hudson Hall is far from a traditional opera house; with no pit and seemingly indifferent acoustics, it was used in the 19th century for speeches by the likes of Emerson and Susan B. Anthony. But, outfitted with 281 folding chairs arranged around its boxy room’s tight proscenium on Friday, it was surprisingly ideal for the intimacy of Handel — despite having the look, as my companion told me, of “Waiting for Guffman.”
The result was nothing so cringe-worthy as the kind of town hall community theater satirized in that movie. With smart direction by R.B. Schlather and excellent performances from the early-music group Ruckus, this is a “Rodelinda” worth of a multiyear commitment to Handel.
Schlather, an American director who should be as well known in the United States as he is in Europe, is a trusted steward of this repertoire, having staged unconventional Handel productions at a Lower East Side gallery and at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. He also, crucially, was at the helm of a beloved, immersive “The Mother of Us All” at Hudson Hall in 2017.
His “Rodelinda” has enough dramaturgical sense to know that the opera — while melodramatic, about murderous and ultimately pointless palace intrigue in medieval Italy — can be a bit baggy in its second act, from which Schlather cut the most material for his more streamlined, two-and-a-half-hour production. But throughout, he is also largely restrained, with few interventions. His scenic and costume designs are redolent of the Victorian age (a nod to Hudson Hall’s era of moralistic speechmaking), though not meticulously devoted to specificity or accuracy with the aesthetic.
Schlather’s intelligence comes through best in other details. His unit set of a single room may be a good money-saver, but it also casts “Rodelinda” as a kind of surreal purgatory between reigns, romances and stages of grief. (Hauntingly, the lone window looks out to a black void.) And he stages the arias — moments of reflection that stop action yet spin out rich psychology through repetition — as addresses rather than as inner thoughts, lending Handel’s small cast the preternatural honesty and self-awareness of Sally Rooney characters.
Crucially, in the finale — after deaths both supposed and real; after lovers are spurned, separated and reunited — Schlather seats the six surviving characters at a table, where their exhausted faces betray the traumatic reality of Handel’s rejoicing, relieved music.
In that scene, and throughout the evening, it was clear that Schlather had spent a lot of time with the singers on dramatic care. Action can move slowly in a Handel opera, but his production is one in which there is always something to see in the performers’ evolving expressions, whether they are directly involved in the action or simply observing it from across the room.
The soprano Keely Futterer, in the title role, looks immediately as if she’s just been through a great tragedy and is staring down another as she desperately holds on to her child, Flavio (a silent role that Myles Fraser shares with Tessa K. Prast). But she is a strong character with a plush, powerful sound to match, at one point, as a power move, brazenly taking and drinking the wine of the man who usurped her husband’s throne. She ornamented her melodies with adventurousness, though those flourishes sometimes got lost in wide vibrato or proved unwieldy. The mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce was affectingly ardent and unsure as her husband, Bertarido.
As the two villains, Grimoaldo and Garibaldo, the tenor Karim Sulayman and the bass-baritone Douglas Williams had the finest vocal outings of the night. Sulayman’s Grimoaldo was appropriately barking yet small, the depiction of a true insecure beta. Here, as is often the case with him, he was driven as much by theatrical instinct as by beauty, holding them in elegant balance and smoothly flowing between the two. Williams’s Garibaldo, by contrast, was a mighty presence, booming and characterfully wicked, imperious in holding his strength and sexuality over others.
The gift of a space like Hudson Hall is that, without too much effort by either the audience or the artists, you can hear every nuance of Handel’s music and its interpretation. But that can be double-edged, revealing any faults in what is already a vulnerably exposing style. So you could sense, on Friday, the relatively soft enunciation of the mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz’s Eduige, for example, or the pinched countertenor of Brennan Hall’s Unulfo.
Lapses like those, though, were outweighed by the truly up-close performances of the evening’s stars: Ruckus. Their command of the score was immediate, precise and fleet in the overture, but also jittery, with questioning flashes of darkness and uncertainty. With a mercurial, almost improvisatory spirit that responded to the drama in real time, they played with the fieriness and emotional charge of verismo.
It’s no surprise that, a few rows in front of me, someone in the audience was rocking along to the music. As Schlather brings Handel back to Hudson Hall over the next several years, let’s hope he brings Ruckus, too.
Through Oct. 29 at Hudson Hall in Hudson, N.Y.; hudsonhall.org.