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The English Concert - Handel: Rodelinda - Presto Classical

In our recent ninetieth-birthday interview with Alfred Brendel, the great Austrian pianist described the twentieth-century revival of interest in Handel’s operas as ‘one of the most wonderful developments within my lifetime’, marvelling at the appearance of ‘a multitude of singers who out of nowhere, as it seemed, developed the necessary bravura of coloratura singing without losing their expressive power’. There could hardly be better testimony to his remarks than today’s new recording of Rodelinda from Harry Bicket and the English Concert, with Iestyn Davies and Lucy Crowe heading up a uniformly excellent cast who deliver that winning combination of virtuosity and eloquence in spades.

The recording was made under socially-distanced conditions at St John’s Smith Square last September after a run of planned performances was cancelled due to the pandemic - and though Bicket’s booklet-note describes the challenges posed by having his players spread out over an unusually wide area, the ensemble is every bit as water-tight and responsive as we’ve come to expect from this A-team over the decades. You’d never guess that the string-players were unable to share a desk as usual, given their absolute unanimity of attack and phrasing throughout, and the interplay between instrumentalists and soloists is similarly seamless. Bicket’s long experience with the piece in opera-houses of varying sizes surely helps: he’s conducted it at both Glyndebourne and the Met, and clearly knows how to make it work on any available canvas.

His two leading singers also have impressive track-records of their roles on stage, Crowe having sung the heroine in Amsterdam shortly before lockdown and Davies giving a superb Bertarido for English National Opera in 2014. As the missing-presumed-dead King of Lombardy (his throne usurped by the treacherous Grimoaldo), Davies brings tremendous pathos to the early scene where he reads the inscription on his tombstone in a state of numb disbelief, and in the Act Two pastoral ‘Con rauco memoria’ delivers some of the most ravishing Handel-singing I’ve heard on disc. The triumphant bravura of ‘Vivi, tiranno’ is despatched not only with absolute ease but also real emotional investment, every embellishment in service of the drama rather than mere vocal display. 

The same is also true of Crowe, who captures Rodelinda’s vulnerability and political savviness to perfection: each decoration in the da capo sections of her arias conveys a shift in mood or a new facet of the character, as well as showcasing an upper register that’s as pristine as it is powerful (shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in the furious stratospheric staccatos of ‘Spietati’, as she defiantly challenges Grimoaldo to execute her son in exchange for her hand). 

The other stand-out performance comes from the remarkable young contralto Jess Dandy, whose weighty but agile voice sounds tailor-made for the tricky role of Eduige, sister to Bertarido and discarded lover of Grimoaldo. It’s a treat to hear the part assigned to a true contralto rather than a mezzo (no disrespect to the great Janet Baker, who sang it opposite Joan Sutherland on  Charles Farncombe’s vintage recording), and she’s a vivid singing actress, spitting poison in the virtuosic ‘De miei scherni’ and absolutely riveting in the Act Three dungeon-scene where she and Rodelinda fear their plan to spring Bertarido from the nick has fatally backfired. 

The other supporting roles are all beautifully done, with tenor Joshua Ellicott eliciting a surprising amount of sympathy for the usurper Grimoaldo (particularly in his beguiling Act Three aria ‘Pastorello d’un povero armento’) and Tim Mead’s darker countertenor as Bertarido’s supporter Unulfo contrasting well with Davies’s bright, plangent timbre (no need to check the booklet-notes to see who’s singing what here!). As the Machiavellian turncoat Garibaldo, the American bass-baritone Brandon Cedel has little to do beyond metaphorical moustache-twirling, but he does it with supreme style and sonorous low notes – proof that ornamenting down can be as powerful as interpolating top Zs…

The English Concert perform a Handel opera at Carnegie Hall every year, and a parallel studio recording of the work now also looks set to become an annual event, with Tamerlano in the offing for 2022: I’d place my pre-order now if I could, especially if Davies is down for the title-role…

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Presto Classical
14 May 2021