Alan Curtis has done more than most to prove that many of Handel’s 42 operas (if we include three early, now lost works composed in Hamburg, and Muzio Scevola, which included original music by Bononcini) are first-rate music dramas – his Admeto (Virgin, 2/99) was one of the first complete recordings of a Handel opera to feature period instruments and all voices at correct pitch without transpositions – but it is surprising to note that this is his first recording of an undisputed popular masterpiece.
Rodelinda, first performed in February 1725, is a stunning work dominated by a title-heroine who remains devoted to her supposedly dead husband Bertarido and scorns the advances of his usurper Grimoaldo. The potency of Handel’s score was enhanced by the complexity of the villain, whose lust-driven cruelty gradually crumbles into a desire to abdicate in order to find spiritual peace. The scene in which the penitent tyrant’s life is saved from assassination by the fugitive Bertarido is among Handel’s greatest dramatic moments. Until now Rodelinda was best served on disc by Nicholas McGegan’s live recording featuring Dominique Labelle and Robin Blaze (alas, only available to Göttingen Handel Society subscribers; for details, see www.haendel.org). Michael Schneider’s harsh, mechanical performance has little merit. Nicholas Kraemer’s version features attractive singing but is pale compared to Curtis’s vivid interpretation.
Simone Kermes is full of feisty courage, an assertive woman for whom Bertarido would credibly risk death to be reunited with her. She takes no prisoners in some extravagant cadenzas, and sings ‘Morrai, si’ with thrillingly viscous venom. At the other extreme, ‘Ritorna o cara’ is simply gorgeous. There are some weaknesses. Marijana Mijanovic’s Bertarido often slips under pitch on long notes and uses indiscriminate vibrato instead of singing through phrases. Her deficiencies with tuning and idiomatic expression are highlighted in two duets with Kermes (one not recorded before), particularly when Handel demands that they sing sustained notes in unison. There is a good case for using a fruity female contralto in castrato roles instead of an angelic countertenor but I cannot understand why Archiv seem keen to record Mijanovic’s inadequate performances of Handel roles for his star castrato, Senesino. A cursory comparison of Mijanovic’s bizarrely unattractive ‘Dove sei’ with any of the impressive contributions from fellow contraltos Marie-Nicole Lemieux or Sonia Prina indicates that either would have better suited the role.
Otherwise, this has an abundance of good things. Il Complesso Barocco have sounded undernourished on some previous recordings but here play with admirable vitality and dramatic subtlety. Curtis has obviously worked hard to encourage his string players to understand what the singers are communicating: each aria is impeccably interpreted and intelligently paced. On the whole, Curtis’s passion and experience ensure another typically persuasive and theatrical vindication of Handel’s genius.