Handel intrigue 

A queen must make impossible choices to save her son and her kingdom in OU’s performance of Rodelinda.

from left Danielle Herrington and Emma Youngblood takes turns playing the titular role in George Frideric Handel’s Rodelinda. - UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA / PROVIDED
  • University of Oklahoma / provided
  • from left Danielle Herrington and Emma Youngblood takes turns playing the titular role in George Frideric Handel’s Rodelinda.

Winter is coming, but not fast enough. The final season of Game of Thrones will not start until April, so for those jonesing for some brutal power grabs and complex political intrigue, George Frideric Handel has your hook-up with his soaring opera of royals gone rabid, Rodelinda. Emma Youngblood and Danielle Herrington take turns portraying the titular character in University of Oklahoma’s production opening Wednesday.

Rodelinda was first performed in 1725 and follows the desperate maneuvering by the queen of Lombardy. After her husband is deposed, Rodelinda’s son becomes the tantalizing prey to all her husband’s would-be successors. Villains are also angling to capture Rodelinda’s heart to secure their claim to the throne. Impossible sacrifices are made, alliances are forged and then broken, and the story features decision-making so dark and shrewd that it could’ve easily come from the mind of George R. R. Martin.

Well, aside from all the singing and noticeable absence of dragons.

The time period has been shifted a bit from the original production, according to Herrington, who is pursuing a doctorate of musical arts in voice.

“The whole premise of the opera centers on the historical noble family of the Lombards, ruling in Milan in 661. I am playing the queen, Rodelinda, who is wife to Bertarido — historically called Perctarit or Berthari — and mother to Flavio. However, our production is not set in the original historical period but rather in the Regency era during the Napoleonic wars. So still historical for us today but just a different point in history, which affects the costuming and our interpretation of the role.”

Youngblood is a first-year master’s student majoring in voice with an emphasis on opera. She describes Rodelinda as a “very strong and courageous woman who knows her priorities.” Though some of the decisions she makes might seem shocking to modern audiences, Youngblood insists it’s all just an expression of her loyalty to her family.

“It can be challenging trying to relate to characters that were written centuries ago, but the themes of suffering through tragedy, not giving up on love and fighting for what’s right are universally and timelessly relatable,” Youngblood said. “I do think as opera singers, we have an advantage because there is so much to learn about our characters through the music. Especially with Handel, his compositions are so emotional and expressive. There is so much said in the haunting chord progressions, fiery coloratura passages and the beautiful legato lines. You know immediately how your character is feeling just by listening to the opening phrase.”

Handel also does not go easy on the solos, creating some really challenging feats for Youngblood and Herrington to master on top of the complex character motivations of a woman going to any length to save her family.

“Rodelinda’s aria in act two, ‘Spietati, io vi giurai,’ was the most daunting to me,” Youngblood said. “During this scene, she is gambling the life of her son in exchange for her marital freedom. This is a crazy and dangerous bet that no mother would ever think to make, but her confidence, intimidation and tenacity allow her to win her freedom and keep her son safe. So understanding her motives and being able to channel all of those emotions was very challenging. It was even more challenging to sing. Handel’s voice writing in this aria is strong and quite revolutionary for his time. The large interval leaps and wide use of the soprano range express how unhinged Rodelinda is and allows for some great coloratura passages to be invented.”

Double roles

For Herrington, there were two factors that proved the biggest challenge: the size of the role and the Baroque style.

“I’ve sang lead roles in Mozart and Rossini, which of course are difficult. However, a Handel Baroque role calls for a massive quantity of music. Additionally, the da capo form requires the singer to create firework ornamentation on the repeated A section. Four of the five arias for Rodelinda are in the da capo form. It’s very thrilling to sing once mastered, but the process of learning it and deciding what is just right for each singer’s particular instrument takes an immense amount of concentration, time and skill.”

According to Herrington, every role is doubled in the production, which can create even more complications.

“We have the same music and the same blocking,” she said. “However, it does become trickier in regards to the da capo embellishments since we have different ornamentations we’ve written for ourselves. Essentially, we just have to keep it in tempo as much as possible and watch the conductor intently.”

Herrington has also performed in a number of operas, including Don Giovanni, Nicer When You Smile and Die Fledermaus. Her path to stage wound through early lessons in classical piano and classical voice because she just didn’t have access to live opera until her senior year of high school.

“I was given the opportunity to sing the role of Mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors, a one-act [Gian Carlo] Menotti opera. It was my first opera to see and to sing, and it changed my life. I’ve been dedicated to the art form in various ways ever since.”

Youngblood has performed in Roman Fever, Iolanthe and Don Giovanni. She also found her passion for opera in high school.

“I attended a Metropolitan Opera performance of [Jules] Massenet’s Manon,” she said. “I was sitting in the last possible row in the back of the top balcony, but I couldn’t believe how resonant and clear their voices sounded. I could hear every consonant, breath and emotion, and I was captivated.”

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