Rodelinda

Rodelinda was premièred at the King’s Theatre in 1725, following Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano. The libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym is inspired on Corneille’s Pertharite, Roi des Lombards, using historical characters, such as Grimoald, Perctarit and Rodelinda herself. In order to illustrate the various dramatic situations in the plot, Handel composed, as in Giulio Cesare, arias in a great vareity of moods, even for the smaller roles – and some beautiful recitativi accompagnati to match, the most notable the one preceding the famous aria Dove sei. Some of these arias belong to Handel’s favorite among the audiences, such as Ombre, piante, urne funeste, Vivi tiranno (written 10 months later for the revival of the original production) and Mio caro bene. Also, maybe because of its agitated plot, it has been one of Handel’s most often performed works.

The role of Rodelinda was written for Francesca Cuzzoni, Senesino was the first Bertarido, Andrea Pacini the first Unulfo, Francesco Borosini took the role of Grimoaldo, Giuseppe Maria Boschi had the role of Garibaldo and Anna Vincenza Dotti was the first Eduige. The opera met with great success, being revived the following season (with Anna Strada in the title role) and also produced in Hamburg in 1734.

HARRY BICKET, 2011
Renée Fleming (Rodelinda), Stephanie Blythe (Eduige), Andreas Scholl (Bertarido), Iestyn Davies (Unulfo), Joseph Kaiser (Grimoaldo), Shenynang (Garibaldo), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Harry Bickett

The Metropolitan Opera House first staged Handel’s Rodelinda in 2004 for Renée Fleming with an all-star cast, including David Daniels and Bejun Mehta. Seven year laters, Stephen Wadsworth’s production was captured on video with two members of the Met première: Renée Fleming and Stephanie Blythe, again under the baton of Harry Bickett. In her discography, Fleming not only has a Handel-only recital (again with Bickett) but also appears in the title role of Alcina, as recorded in Paris with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie. Even in 2004, her Rodelinda was something of an acquired taste for sticklers for baroque style, but her feeling for the music is palpable and she deals with Rodelinda’s lamenti indeed expressively. In 2011, the trade-off is more dubious: the voice is less fresh, the coloratura less tidy, the registers more unequal. But the engagement is there and, if one lends her an unprejudiced ear, he or she will find touching renditions of arias like Ombre, piante or Ritorna, o caro. While Stephanie Blythe’s fruity, big and firm mezzo are always irresistible, she too used to be more fluent in her fioriture in 2004. As recorded, it sounds a bit on the mechanic side.  Andreas Scholl’s countertenor had lost some of its sheen when this was recorded and does not sound heroic or regal enough, even when he tackles the divisions in Vivi, tiranno with great dexterity. If you want to sample his performance as Bertarido, you would better refer to his 1998 recording from Glyndebourne. Iestyn Davies’s countertenor sometimes suggests rather the church than the stage, but his singing is always stylish and pleasant. Joseph Kaiser’s Grimoaldo is something of a compromise between baroque values and the need to project his tenor into a huge auditorium. Although there a few bumps on the way, the challenge is very bravely sustained. Shengyang’s bass is often grainy, but it is also fluent and forceful. Harry Bicket has a smaller version of the Met’s orchestra, encouraged to adopt some period practices, such as strings playing with reduced vibrato and the addition of a theorbo and a lute. From the point-of-view of coping with often contrasting demands (period practices, modern orchestra, non-specialist singers, large theatre…), Maestro Bicket does a great traffic cop job – the overall impression is very convincing in terms of style, he never lets his singers disgrace themselves in difficult music and there never is an impression of straitjacket, but it is also very undramatic in terms of music-making, especially when tempi are fast. In these moments, it sounds rather as if they were all of them trying their best to get the damned thing done than as if they were using divisions, runs and other difficulties as expressive tools. For a performance for the general audience (rather than in a specialized venue), the edition is very economical in what regards cuts, some of them restricted to the deletion of B sections and repeats; Eduige even gets a number not listed in any of my sources. Steven Wadsworth’s stating is something of a XVIIIth century stravaganza, with realistic sets equipped with all kind of modern stage contraptions. The Personenregie looks as if TV soap operas such as Dinasty or Dallas had been staged with wigs and petticoats. It all looks very busy and flashy with many extras going up and down, but there is a most commendable strife for making characters’ motivations coherent and realistic:  Eduige and Grimoaldo, for instance, had never seemed less nonsensical as here.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 2011
Danielle de Niese (Rodelinda), Malena Ernman (Eduige), Bejun Mehta (Bertarido), Matthias Rexroth (Unulfo), Kurt Streit (Grimoaldo), Konstantin Wolff (Garibaldo), Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

The video from the Theater an der Wien is a father-son collaboration between Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his son Philipp. Harnoncourt, Sr, offers a theatrical performance aided by rich and characterful playing from the Concentus Musicus. Predictably, there are many examples of odd tempo shift and other distracting mannerisms, most notable when the affetto is softer, when a lack of pathos is sometimes felt (frustratingly so in Prigioniera ho l’alma) . The edition involves many cuts in recitatives, the deletion of some numbers (such as Rodelinda’s Mio caro bene), the internal trimming of arias and the inclusion of the Rodelinda/Bertarido duet D’ogni crudel martir. The final chorus appears as an appendix after the applause. I am not so convinced of Harnoncourt, Jr’s talents: the staging runs dangerously close to a high school theater project. Sets and costumes are nonsensical, characters behave as if they were five year old, the stage action is completely incoherent and the director seems to have the power to boost hamminess in all involved. To make things worse, there is a serious intent of making comedy of an opera seria the plot of which is famously gloomy. As it is, the Almodovar-esque episodes, the funny little secondary actions carried out by extras (cute choreography involved) and the telenovela over-the-top-ness make this very difficult to watch. Although Danielle de Niese’s stage performance would easily get a golden raspberry, her singing is very apt. She is all right light-toned for the part and mezza voce is entirely beyond her possibilities, but she manages to use the edge in her tone to portray Rodelinda’s edgy state-of-mind and finds reserves of feeling for the more expressive numbers. Malena Ernman could have been an ideal Eduige, but is unacceptably whimsical in unstylish vocal effects that have more to do with circus than music. Bejun Mehta’s voice has seen firmer and more forceful days and he sounds affected when trying zillions of dynamic shades at the expense of flowing legato. In any case, his countertenor is still exceptionally rich-toned and his technical abandon in fioriture is admirable as always. Kurt Streit was an exemplary Grimoaldo for William Christie.  More than 10 years later, his singing has lost a great deal of polish and has gained almost nothing in insight or expression. The role of Garibaldo is on the low side for Konstantin Wolff and does not seem to agree with his personality either. Matthias Rexroth has his bumpy moments as Unulfo, but makes the best of unglamorous means.

ALAN CURTIS, 2004
Simone Kermes (Rodelinda), Sonia Prina (Eduige), Marijana Mijanovic (Bertarido), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Unulfo), Steve Davislim (Grimoaldo), Vito Priante (Garibaldo), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis

Alan Curtis’s recording with the Complesso Barocco is a puzzling affair. As conducted by the American conductor, this opera seria could be taken for a divertimento. Drained from its dramatic intensity, this score sounds like a series of charming melodies, especially when the light and clear orchestral sound is pleasing as it is here. This is particularly noticeable in numbers reputed for their pathos, such as Bertarido’s Con rauco mormorio and Rodelinda’s Ritorna, o caro, here reducted to dance-like graciousness. That said, the beauty of sound here offered may be compensation enough, especially in such a frustrating discography. The exquisite-sounding cast concurs to the polite and polished overall impression. In the title role, the German baroque-music diva Simone Kermes offers purity of tone even in her easily produced in alts and proves to have developed the middle and low registers of her beautifully homogenous voice. She knows how to make clear that she is furious or tender through verbal-pointing and takes readily to dramatic coloratura, but the tone quality is cold and not really varied. As a result, her Rodelinda sounds too chic for the circumstances. Just compare her to Dorothea Röschmann live in Munich (see below) to grasp the difference. It is curious that throughout the discography the role of Eduige is always cast from strength. This recording is no exception: Sonia Prina offers a spirited, technically fluent performance. Although her tone is warm and solid, she makes it clear this is not a breeches role. Compared to her, Marijana Mijanovic’s more metallic and positive sound does create the illusion of masculinity. Nevertheless, her singing is a bit on the lackadaisical side: interpretation is generalized, the coloratura is sometimes too dangerously closed to aspiration and the hint of uncertain pitch and flutter discretely noticeable in Minkowski’s Giulio Cesare is more evident here. This is highlighted by the fact that the second male alto role is sung with firm warm velvety tone by Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Taking the reluctant bad guy role, Steve Davislim brings a natural and generous tenor voice to this role for a change. His fondness for legato-ish coloratura sometimes result in smeared passagework, but the tonal beauty is more than compensation. It is a pity that Prigionera ho l’alma i is here is robbed of introspection by Curtis’s sprightly accompaniment. Finally Vito Priante is a forceful idiomatic Garibaldo. This is also an opportunity to here the alternative 1725 version of Unulfo’s Sono i colpi della sorte, while the usual version appears as an extra in the third disc.

IVOR BOLTON, 2004
Dorothea Röschmann (Rodelinda), Fellicity Palmer (Eduige), Michael Chance (Bertarido), Cristopher Robson (Unulfo), Paul Nilon (Grimoaldo), Umberto Chiummo (Garibaldo), Bayerische Staatsorchester, Ivor Bolton

The DVD from the Bayerische Staatsoper features Ivor Bolton’s clean and dramatic conducting, helped by the warm and animated playing from the distinguished house orchestra, vividly recorded in natural perspective. This is a performance in which the drama takes pride of place – and the compelling cast (with two notable exceptions) makes the temperature rise even more. Dorothea Röschmann offers a forceful take on the title role, making use of every word of the libretto and every note of the score to full effect. The emotional intensity conveyed through the German soprano’s creamy bright flexible soprano, makes for a somewhat clouded low register. Although close-ups reveal that Felicity Palmer is a bit older than her role, her rock-solid mezzo soprano, stylishness and fluent technique more than compensate that. Although Paul Nilon’s tenor acquires a glaring sound in the upper register and lacks focus in the lower reaches, he deals with Handel’s intricate writing with aplomb and offers a rather congenial vision of his character while keeping nastiness at an arm’s length. Umberto Chiummo’s bass too lacks focus, but that works as a bad-guy sound somehow. Unfortunately, the key role of Bertarido is sung by a countertenor that even in his prime has never had a heroic sound or a serviceable low register. It is true that Michael Chance is stylish and expressive, but the overall impression is too pallid and – predictably – act III does not work at all. Cristopher Robson is even more breathy and inconsistent, but manages to convey some lyricism in Fra tempeste funeste. David Alden’s idea of making Rodelinda a film noir with the mafia, speakeasies and plenty of decadence is effective, if not original. He has good ideas that help us understand the nature of characters, such as portraying Eduige as an alcoholic version of Maerose Prizzi, but his overbusy actors’ direction falls too often in nonsense and ends on making the cast looks ridiculous. Fortunately this cast scores highly in acting skills.

WILLIAM CHRISTIE, 1998
Anna Caterina Antonnacci (Rodelinda), Louise Winter (Eduige), Andreas Scholl (Bertarido), Artur Stefanowicz (Unulfo), Kurt Streit (Grimoaldo), Umberto Chiummo (Garibaldo), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment, William Christie

While the Bayerische Staatsoper features a re-creation of the atmosphere of gangster movies from the 40’s, director Jean-Marie Villégier goes even further into silent movies to tell the story of Queen Rodelinda. The idea is very good, but I am afraid the result is even more artificial than the production from Munich. Not only does it rob all spontaneity from actors, but it also undermines the emotional response from the cast. Although these singers are good actors, they ultimately do nothing but parade meaningless gestures throughout. Anna Catarina Antonnacci is in very good voice and fills Rodelinda’s lines with her sensuous elegant flexible mezzo soprano and native Italian to great effect. Although Dorothea Röschmann may find a more intense and urgent tone to her Rodelinda, it is Antonnacci who has the sound image of a tragic queen in her fuller and nobler voice. As Eduige, Louise Winter has the bad luck of competing with some of the best Handelian contraltos and mezzos. So her very good performance fails to impress if one has Felicity Palmer or Sonia Prina in mind. Her voice sits higher than the role, but she has a very good low extension (her embellishments show that she feels more comfortable in the higher part of her voice).  Although her registers are very well knit, the coloratura has a nasal not entirely smooth sound. Andreas Scholl might be the reason to prefer this DVD rather than the one from Munich. The voice is here bright, expressive and easy and he seizes the opportunity to produce a grand effect in the heroic arias. Kurt Streit is very well cast as Grimoaldo – his tenor here sounds free, natural, expressive and he sings with sense of style. Umberto Chiummo too is more flexible voice here. Artur Stefanowicz is a reliable Unulfo.

NICHOLAS KRAEMER, 1996
Sophie Daneman (Rodelinda), Catherine Robbin (Eduige), Daniel Taylor (Bertarido), Robin Blaze (Unulfo), Adrian Thompson (Grimoaldo), Cristopher Purves (Garibaldo), Raglan Baroque Players, Nicholas Kraemer

Nicholas Kraemer’s Rodelinda lacks energy and drama, and the Raglan Baroque Players do not offer anything really special as compensation. Neither does the cast.  Although Sophie Daneman’s singing is adept and beguiling, she cannot help but sounding helplessly bland. In a whole different level is Catherine Robbin, who proves to have some charisma as Eduige. Daniel Taylor’s countertenor has a pleasant voice and imagination, but act III is beyond his possibilities. Robin Blaze’s countertenor has a brighter edge, but the sound is also more “feminine” too. Adrian Thompson’s tenor has an attractive full-toned quality and some sense of drama. However, his voice produces a weird sound whenever divisions are required. Cristopher Purves is an effective Garibaldo.

MICHAEL SCHNEIDER, 1990
Barbara Schlick (Rodelinda), Claudia Schubert (Eduige), David Cordier (Bertarido), Kai Wessel (Unulfo), Cristoph Prégardien (Grimoaldo), Gotthold Schwarz (Garibaldo), La Stagione, Michael Schneider

Michael Schneider’s was Rodelinda’s first performance in original instruments. He has an excellent orchestra in La Stagione and the playing is elegant and accurate. However, the approach is too oratorio-like and comes short of Handel’s inspiration. Barbara Schlick is a sensitive singer who readily understands what is required from her in every turn of the plot – and uses the natural brightness of her soprano to put some energy into her Rodelinda, but the voice is short in sensuousness and her method is more attuned to a Bach cantata than to opera seria. The same problem afflicts the competent Claudia Schubert, whose Eduige lacks warmth and is too tame of temper. Pure-toned as David Cordier’s countertenor is, it is essentially unsuited to opera. Kai Wessel’s Unulfo could be described in similar words, but the tonal quality is even more discrete. Cristoph Prégardien’s singing is here so expressive and seductive that one cannot quite understand why Rodelinda still cares so much about Bertarido… It is hardly his fault that he does not sound like the bad guy for one second. Gotthold Schwarz tackes the coloratura commendably, but the voice lacks tone.

RICHARD BONYNGE, 1985
Joan Sutherland (Rodelinda), Isobel Buchhanan (Eduige), Alicia Nafé (Bertarido), Curtis Rayam (Grimoaldo), Samuel Ramey (Garibaldo), Welsh National Opera, Richard Bonynge

Richard Bonynge was the first conductor to take Rodelinda to the recording studio. This was not, however, his first encounter with the work. A live performance in Amsterdam from 1973 is also available. In it, Sutherland (who first sung the role in 1959 with Janet Baker as Eduige) has the title role too. By 1985, however, it was a bit late for both soprano and conductor. Although Bonynge has a natural feeling for rhythm and a long experience in what regards finding the right tempo for coloratura to produce the right effect, the plush string section, the metallic harpsichord continuo, the overslow B section of arias, the absolute lack of rhetorical gesture in the music making (and a very adventurous edition in what regards trimming and cutting) make this nothing but a curiosity from a time when Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt had been recording their Bach cantata series for a while. As for Sutherland, if you want to sample La Stupenda’s Handelian talents, maybe the mementos from the 1959 English-language performance would be the best idea. In 1985, the voice sounds old, the style is excessive languid and there is very little spontaneity. The legendary trills, however, are fully functional, and she never misses an opportunity to display them. The Bertarido from 1973, Huguette Tourangeau, is here demoted to the role of Unulfo, which she sings in a completely worn out voice. The new Bertarido, Alicia Nafé, has a pleasant voice, technical poise and some grasp of baroque style, but is helplessly demure. The role of Eduige has been adjusted to fit soprano Isobel Buchanan, who actually makes something out of it in a plausible and not truly stylish performance. Although Curtis Rayam seems to be having the time of his life as bad-guy Grimoaldo, his technique is irregular and the acquaintance with baroque aesthetics very superficial. Predictably, Samuel Ramey steals the show in his high-octane supersonic coloratura and impressive control over an endless range.