NEW YORK - At this time of year, the name George Frideric Handel crops up an awful lot, but usually just for one reason - his oratorio Messiah, as closely associated with the holiday season as "Silent Night."
The Metropolitan Opera is currently drawing attention to another part of Handel's legacy with a production of Rodelinda that puts composer and company in a very favorable light.
Handel's many works for the stage used to be considered too dusty, too formulaic, just too dull for post-Puccini tastes. But, starting in 1920 with a revival in Germany of Rodelinda, they have slowly, steadily regained a footing in the repertoire.
The Met hasn't been a big player in this restoration - its first Handel staging (Rinaldo) wasn't until 1984 - but the introduction of Rodelinda into its repertoire this month makes up for previous scarcity.
Thomas Lynch's grandly scaled scenic design takes full advantage of the Met's facilities. Sets slide seamlessly to reveal interior and exterior portions of the Milan palace where the action takes place. A stable (with live horse) and two-story library are particularly atmospheric.
In the last act, the entire stage rises to reveal a subterranean prison cell below (the same trick used in Franco Zeffirelli's Met production of Tosca).
Handel's London public, which flocked to the premiere of Rodelinda in 1725, expected visual opulence; no harm in giving today's audiences plenty of it, too. What Handel's followers mostly craved, of course, was vocal splendor. The Met offers a good deal of that as well.
Everyone in the cast not only fulfills the taxing vocal demands of the score, but also brings total conviction to the plot, which is as convoluted as you would expect in a baroque opera.
Bertarido, the Milanese king, is believed dead but is really in disguise; his wife, Rodelinda, is pursued by Grimoaldo, usurper of the throne. Complications are many, emotions intense.
It's amazing how much eloquence and psychological insight Handel could achieve here within the conventional structure of a baroque opera - one solo aria after another, each written in "da capo" form (an opening section, middle section and vocally embellished repeat of the opening).
There's only one duet in Rodelinda - at the end of the second act - and the effect of two voices blending after two hours or so of single-voice action is stunning. It's the same when, another two hours later, all the singers join together for the closing music.
In the title role, Renee Fleming again justifies her stellar status. The creaminess of her tone is a rare balm; the conviction behind her every word and gesture gives Rodelinda remarkable depth.
David Daniels, leader of the amazing contemporary countertenor revolution in today's opera world, offers compelling musicality as Bertarido. When pushed by the most emphatic portions of the score, his voice isn't a thing of great beauty but everything else is delivered with a melting warmth.
Another strikingly gifted countertenor, Bejun Mehta, as Unulfo, reveals impeccable articulation, dynamic phrasing and a real smile in the voice. Kobie van Rensburg uses his smallish tenor in agile, ever-expressive fashion as Grimoaldo. Stephanie Blythe's lustrous timbre and exciting delivery enliven the character of Eduige. John Relyea is a solid Garibaldo.
Conductor Harry Bicket, an early-music specialist who eschews pedantry, takes ideal tempos and coaxes transparent textures and exquisite detailing from the Met orchestra.
Other than frequently sending pairs of soldiers across the stage for no apparent reason and to increasingly silly effect, director Stephen Wadsworth has the action flowing naturally and purposefully.
This astute and loving production fully honors Rodelinda's riches and Handel's genius.
Remaining performances of Handel's "Rodelinda" are tomorrow, Dec. 15, 18, 22 and 27, Jan. 1 and Jan. 6 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For tickets, call 212-362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org.