Rodelinda was the first of Handel’s operas to be revived in modern times (at Gottingen, in 1920) and the first to be performed in the USA (at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1931), and this summer it adds to its laurels the distinction of being the first Handel opera (as opposed to oratorio) to be staged at Glyndebourne. Composed just after Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, it must, I think, rank in many people’s top half-dozen of the Handel operas, with its complex plot of dynastic intrigue revolving around the powerful, steadfast love of Bertarido (the ousted king of Milan) and his queen Rodelinda: just the kind that unfailingly drew strong music from Handel. This newer recording was made in 1996 following a semi-staged performance at Blackheath. Nicholas Kraemer, who gained experience of Handel operas at the famous Abingdon stagings put on by the late Alan Kitching, gives a very direct and unaffected reading of this score. The pacing is sensible, if anything slightly on the slow side (at least by recent standards of Handel opera conducting), especially perhaps in the recitative; the playing of the Raglan Baroque Players is alive and rhythmically well sprung, with a firmly defined bass-line. There is some modest ornamentation in the da capo sections of the arias. What I don’t get very strongly is much sense of urgency or boldness, of an unfolding drama, or indeed of the musical characterization of individual numbers. There is just a hint here of the ‘concert in costume’. But it is distinctly an improvement on the only previous CD version of Rodelinda, which suffered far worse in precisely this respect.
Its star is undoubtedly Sophie Daneman. Familiar in French (and primarily sacred) music, she is not a specially dramatic singer of Italian opera. But the voice is bright and intense, very firm in focus, dead sure in pitch, with only the faintest and most discriminatingly used hint of vibrato. It is ideally suited to Rodelinda’s character, as the poignant singing of her lovely, elegiac opening aria makes clear – and that is immediately followed by a defiant one, vigorously thrown off. Later she has one of Handel’s most exquisite siciliano arias, and in the last act the great F minor lament “Se’il mio duol”, with its wonderful accompaniment enriched by moaning recorders and bassoons, sung with great passion and intensity. The other singer I particularly enjoyed was the tenor Adrian Thompson, as the would-be usurper Grimoaldo. Thompson’s easy and natural delivery, his natural feeling for the shape of Handel’s phrases and his elegant manner make all his music a pleasure to listen to, and perhaps especially his final aria, another siciliano, where his pianissimo in the da capo is a delight.
Catherine Robbin sings Eduige’s music with spirit and rhythmic life. The two castrato roles, Bertarido and Unulfo, are both taken by countertenors. Daniel Taylor is a very accomplished singer, even-toned and accurate, well able to realize the pathos of Bertarido’s prison scene (a B flat minor aria, Largo; though he doesn’t quite rise to the drama of the accompanied recitative that follows), and the famous “Dove sei” is touchingly done. But this role was written for Senesino, one of the great expressive singers of his day, and I don’t think Taylor (or indeed the countertenor voice) is quite capable of conveying emotion on the scale the music demands. Unulfo’s rather smaller part is neatly and clearly done – and some exceedingly awkward passagework is surely negotiated in his Act 1 aria – by Robin Blaze, although the general effect is rather bland and sober. Christopher Purves takes the role of the villainous Garibaldo capably but is rather strident at the top.
This may not be the most dramatic of Handel opera recordings. But it does give an excellent account of the music and there is some first-rate singing – and in one of the very finest and most compelling of the Handel operas. Don’t miss it.'