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The English Concert - Handel: Rodelinda - Gramophone

Triumphantly premiered at the King’s Theatre on February 13, 1725, Rodelinda was the third of the trio of masterpieces, after Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, that formed the creative high point of Handel’s Royal Academy venture. Drawing vaguely on seventh-century history, via Corneille’s tragedy Pertharite, roi des Lombards, the libretto is, by Baroque opera standards, a model of clarity and credible motivation; and it inspired Handel to consistently glorious invention, above all for the heroine – perhaps his most searchingly drawn soprano role – for her exiled husband Bertarido, and for the lustful, vicious, ultimately remorseful usurper Grimoaldo. The music historian Charles Burney (father of Fanny) got it spot on: ‘Rodelinda contains such a number of capital and pleasing airs as entitles it to one of the first places among Handel’s dramatic productions.’

Of a handful of previous recordings, the finest was directed by Alan Curtis, with Simone Kermes in the title-role. This new version, recorded with Covid-enforced distancing in St John’s Smith Square, strikes me as even better. The singing is first-rate, while Harry Bicket has an unerring ear for pacing and instrumental colour. He and the ever-responsive English Concert relish without indulgence the sensuous beauty of Handel’s textures: in, say, Bertarido’s ‘Dove sei’ (an instant hit and, as ‘Art thou troubled?’, a Victorian favourite), or Rodelinda’s tragic ‘Se ’l mio duol’, exquisitely scored with recorders and bassoons. Throughout the opera the players are always dramatic partners and animators, never mere accompanists.

Francesca Cuzzoni, the original Rodelinda, was famed for her sweetness of tone, agility in coloratura and what a contemporary writer called ‘her tender and touching expression’: qualities shared by her 21st-century counterpart Lucy Crowe. From Rodelinda’s opening aria mourning Bertarido’s supposed death, via the yearning siciliano ‘Ritorna, o caro’, to her radiant final aria, Crowe acts vividly with the voice without ever compromising tonal beauty. Her phrasing is both graceful and subtle, and she invariably brings a new intensity to the da capos. Some may find her stratospheric ornaments in ‘Spietati’, as she defies the repulsive Garibaldo, over the top. I don’t. Burning into her Italian consonants, Simone Kermes, for Curtis, brings more sheer venom to ‘Spietati’ and ‘Morrai, sì’. Crowe, though hardly less dramatic, suggests the pain behind Rodelinda’s outrage.

Like so many of the roles Handel wrote for his star castrato Senesino, the fugitive Bertarido is a predominantly passive figure, rising to heroic stature only in the third act. Iestyn Davies’s refinement and delicacy make ‘Dove sei’ and the melancholy siciliano ‘Con rauco mormorio’ highlights. He is moving, too, in Bertarido’s prison scene. For all Davies’s agility, I find him slightly less convincing in his bravura showpieces in Act 3. This is where a strong female mezzo or contralto can have the edge. Curtis’s Marijana Mijanovic´ certainly conveys more heroic bravado here, though her uneven tone production is exposed in Bertarido’s many slower numbers. At the very least, Davies always makes a beautiful sound.

After his superb Samson with the Dunedin Consort (Linn, 12/19), Joshua Ellicott excels as the villainous yet weakly vacillating Grimoaldo: from the snarling fury of his opening ‘Io già t’amo’, egged on by spitting strings, to the drowsily softened tone of his final aria as Grimoaldo sings himself to sleep. As in the beguiling minuet song ‘Prigoniera’, Bicket’s spacious tempo pays dividends here.

The lesser roles are all well taken. As the evil Garibaldo, the young American Brandon Cedel fields a darkly resonant bass-baritone and never merely blusters. He also convincingly woos Bertarido’s sister Eduige, sung by Jess Dandy with a bronze depth of tone. In the secondary castrato role of Unulfo, a secret ally of Bertarido, Tim Mead sings with his familiar smoothness and sure feeling for the Handelian line. The booklet includes a literate translation by Peter Jones and a typically thought-provoking essay from Ruth Smith. Curtis and his cast provide a comparable theatrical experience. But this new recording, more subtly directed and more consistently sung, now becomes my top recommendation for an opera that should be on any Handel lover’s shortlist.

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Gramophone
01 July 2021