Founded in 1947 by legendary soprano Lotte Lehmann, Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West produces a summer workshop and festival that’s ever-growing and ever more cherishable. And while Lehmann is said to have had little use for operas composed before the time of her beloved Mozart, this summer’s homage to Baroque master George Frideric Handel ranks high in the Academy’s half-century’s-plus achievement annals.
Composed in 1725 when Handel could do no wrong in the eyes of opera-mad London, “Rodelinda” stands apart from its composer’s other works: The opera’s plot unfolds on a human scale rather than in the world of gods, goddesses, magicians and monsters.
Queen Rodelinda believes her husband, Bertarido, has been killed by usurpers; actually, he is living incognito, gathering forces for his return to bed and throne. Some 3-1/2 hours later, this happens (with a share of hairbreadth near-fatal misunderstandings along the way). As befits the scenario, Handel has created music unusual in its warmth and sensuous beauty; a love-duet at the act two curtain, all mellifluous thirds and sixths, could pass as the most beautiful of all his music.
For Santa Barbara’s first Handelian excursion, director Christopher Mattaliano developed a setting that is elegant but simple, marked by a smooth managing of exits and entrances to offset the episodic nature of Baroque opera. His villains smoke cigarettes; heroes and villains brandish up-to-date handguns.
James Scott’s military getup and simple gowns did not represent a particular time or place. In the pit, Randall Behr’s expert small ensemble, backed by a properly placed harpsichord, gave out the proper sounds for a Handelian orchestra.
Casts for Santa Barbara’s one-per-summer operas are drawn from young professionals, who work under the academy’s faculty led by voice program director Marilyn Horne, an ardent supporter of restoring Handel to the repertory.
Attention this summer focused on Bejun Mehta — cast in two of the three performances as Rodelinda’s long-lost husband — who in 1997, in his mid-30s, decided to transform himself into a countertenor and has done so with spectacular success.
A distant cousin of conductor Zubin Mehta, Bejun Mehta sang with an ease that belied the brevity of his career. Part of a highly skilled cast — Karen Wierzba’s Rodelinda overcame a couple of inevitable one-note disasters in what is a killer role — Mehta stole the show.He may next hone his art of grand thievery on Sept. 26 in the New York City Opera’s first-ever production of Handel’s “Ariodante.” Although the world may want for adequate romantic tenors and Wagnerian sopranos, in the countertenor department with Mehta alongside Americans Brian Asawa and David Daniels, the ranks are brimming and golden.