Handel Rodelinda

Author: 
Stanley Sadie

Handel Rodelinda

  • Rodelinda
  • Floridante

I don't think it's going too far to say the excerpt disc of Floridante sets new standards in the presentation of Handel as a dramatic composer. No one who has heard it will be able to be condescending about Handel's operas again. The combination of Alan Curtis's full-blooded direction, which takes the music simply for what it is, a cast who show a real grasp of how to convey powerful emotion through this idiom, and a good deal of music of supremely high quality, makes it as exciting an issue in its way as the recent Gramophone Award-winning Giulio Cesare under Jacobs. Floridante is not musically quite on that level, or certainly not consistently so; but it does have several superb numbers and a lot of music in a vivacious and appealing style for the secondary characters, Rossane and Timante. The excerpt disc concentrates on the music for Floridante himself, offering five of his seven arias and his duet. There is a wonderfully simple first aria, typical of the way Handel had his star castrato capture his audience's attention at the start of an evening, with just continuo accompaniment (and a closing orchestral ritornello), then a Larghetto in 12/8, a fiery G minor piece from Act 2, with great urgency in the orchestral playing providing the singer with real support, and all three of his arias from the last act, including another deeply-felt 12/8 one, in C minor, a serene farewell to life, and a spirited final one. Catherine Robbin's firm, beautifully formed tone and her wide emotional range make her the ideal interpreter of these alto castrato parts written for the great Senesino. She sings finely too in the very moving duet that ends Act I, a piece with echoes of Esther, where she is joined by Linda Maguire, who makes no less accomplished a heroine in Elmira's music—listen to her powerful, ringing mezzo in the vigorous ''Ma pria vedro le stelle'' (a furious protestation of fidelity), or her outburst of rage (''Barbaro!'') in Act 2, or above all her second aria in that act, sung with a Verdian intensity yet without a hint of infringing the limits of Handelian style: this is a remarkable piece, in the very special key of B flat minor, a clear precursor with its noble descending theme of the most moving chorus in Judas Maccabaeus (still more than 20 years off). There are also three arias, much lighter in style, for Rossane, sung in spirited fashion by Nancy Argenta, and a dulcet duet for her and Ingrid Attrot. All the arias are preceded by recitatives, sung with considerable vitality and drama; the performance sounds as if these artists had given the work theatrically. There is some generally appropriate ornamentation (and one horribly inappropriate bit, by Robbin at the beginning of the da capo of her last aria, creating a harmonic and contrapuntal solecism). The disc is one that no Handelian should miss; and it provides an object lesson in baroque operatic style under Alan Curtis's alert and knowledgeable direction.
But this is of course an excerpt disc, and Floridante is far too good an opera to be only partially represented in any Handel collection. The new complete version is not, however, on the same level, for three principal reasons. First, Nicholas McGegan's direction: it is lively, as usual, but mannered to a degree, with its persistent and ultimately irritating little swells and squeezes and its coldly abrupt phrase-endings, which to my ears sound unnatural and occasional downright unmusical. I really don't believe that a shapely end to a phrase is a romantic affectation, or that Handel envisaged anything as disturbingly jerky as this; somehow these abrupt gestures seem to be proclaiming a detachment, if not an alienation, from any kind of musical expressiveness. Secondly there is the singing of Drew Minter in the title-role, which though generally musicianly is very soft-edged, wanting in definition and incisiveness; the effect is often heavy and bland in expression. His Act 2 aria ''Tacero'', for example, is done with some power yet it needs more mettle in the voice. Then thirdly, there is Annette Markert's Elmira, decently sung—she does not fail to sound angry in the aria that begins with her furious exclamation ''Barbaro!'' or in her big aria of defiance at the end of Act 2—yet it is basically on a cautious, modest scale, without much personality or characterization.
More enjoyable is the singing of the secondary lovers, Rossane and Timante, to whom Handel gives some very charming, lightweight music. The singing of Katalin Farkas, the Rossane here, has been a strong feature on several of these Hungarian recordings, her musical voice and fresh, natural manner serve well in these typically bright B flat major pieces with tripping rhythms. But her last aria is a shade carelessly dashed off. Maria Zadori sings Timante's music with no special pretensions over a male (castrato) part, from the spirited first aria, ''Dopo il nembo'', to the two very individual numbers that begin Acts 2 and 3, both in A major—the first a siciliano, the second a lively and appealing piece with some unexpected rhythms. These two also have a charming, delicately scored duet. The villain of the piece, Oronte, is sung in a well-defined baritone by Istvan Gati, particularly fine in his powerful and haunted final aria, and Coralbo's single number is gracefully and warmly done by the softer-toned Jozsef Moldvay. There is some ornamentation, occasionally slightly mechanical in style; the recitative is not always very animated. The recording was made at a live performance, applause bursts in at the end of each act, to very discomfiting effect particularly as there is virtually no sense of an audience's presence elsewhere in the set.
Floridante, which Handel wrote in 1721, inaugurated one of the most inspired spells of composition in the entire history of opera. It was followed by Ottone (too little known, but soon to be available on CD), then in quick succession Flavio, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and in 1725 Rodelinda, now released on CD for the first time. This recording, as the opening bars of the overture make clear, offers a solid, rather conservative but sound and musicianly reading of the work, using an accomplished period-instrument group. I mention the opening of the overture in particular because it is one of those classic examples where most modern groups will 'double dot' some of the rhythms, making them more jerky, in the French style; Michael Schneider plays them exactly as they are notated, which I found surprising in the light of most thinking today but nevertheless pretty convincing (it's partly a matter of tempo and articulation, not just of note lengths). But he does play the ensuing minuet in a rather Frenchified way. He also uses quite conventional rallentandos at cadences (not ineffectively, but a shade more routinely than is perhaps best), and his singers offer very little ornamentation. I have to say that no ornamentation is a lot better than bad ornamentation, which is what we often get; but what the music actually needs if it is to make its points properly is good ornamentation, as that is part of its actual expression. This is all of a piece with his reluctance to press the music forward dramatically. Far too often there is a break, killing the drama, between recitative and aria; and indeed there is not much passion or intensity about the performance generally. Another respect in which it is rather traditional is in the tendency (one I have noted mainly in German performances) for the textures to be heavily top-and-bottom, with the continuo harmony recorded faintly and distantly.
For all these points, I found a great deal to enjoy in the direct, unaffected approach to the music. But when the direction of a performance is less than lively and inspiring, a heavier responsibility rests on the singers simply to make it interesting. Not all of them rise to it here. The performance is in some respects carefully cast, with firm, light and clear voices in every role. Barbara Schlick shines in the title-part. The opera opens—unlike many Handel operas, which don't take fire until Act 2—with a wonderful C minor cavatina for Rodelinda, one of Handel's most poignant arias of mourning with some masterly touches of harmony, she sings it movingly, and although not a powerful singer she rises to the defiant piece that follows. Her floating phrases in ''Ombre, piante'', later in Act 1, and her account of the lovely siciliano ''Ritorna, oh caro e dolce mio tesoro'' in Act 2 are also moments to treasure, but above all there is her elegiac F minor aria in the final act, ''Se'l mio duol non e si forte'', with its highly original writing with recorders and bassoons, when she believes her beloved dead: this is the main emotional climax of the work, and in her quiet, not too demonstrative way she rises to it.
Nothing else is quite as good as her contribution, though I was certainly much impressed by Christoph Pregardien's singing of the big tenor role, the complex character Grimoaldo, rogue rather than villain, who finally turns out to be a decent chap after all when he repents after a long near-mad scene in accompanied recitative, culminating in a pastoral 12/8 aria, babbling of green fields. Grimoaldo has a good deal of fiery music; Pregardien sings the demanding semiquaver passages with accuracy and rhythmic vitality, and he is graceful in the slower arias too. Claudia Schubert gives an attractively clear and precise account of Eduige's music, nicely spirited in her opening aria. As the villainous Garibaldo, Gotthold Schwarz provides clean and agile singing, lightish in tone but not without fire when it is needed (his big D minor aria in Act 2, for example). The two alto castrato parts here, like Floridante's part above are sung by male altos. Unlike some Handelians, I don't find this in principle objectionable, although the male alto or countertenor voice is probably not much like the castrato one (nor, I suppose, is the female alto). But it is not much more successful here than in Floridante, though for different reasons. The Unulfo, Kai Wessel, copes well with the high tessitura, and judged simply as singing David Cordier's performance in the central heroic role of Bertarido is hard to fault. But a quality of tone that would be very appealing in, say, anthems by Purcell is not really right for this highly dramatic and often impassioned music. I am sure many people will find his singing of ''Dove sei'', the famous aria for Bertarido, very beautiful, but I do think it is meant to speak in a voice in quite a different dimension, expressively, from this. His 12/8 siciliano aria, ''Con rauco mormorio'', too should surely be flooded with passion, and the B flat minor prison aria in the last act ought to have more expressive force.
Rodelinda is an opera with many fine things; and in several respects this is an excellent recording, although the casting was perhaps misguided and the general approach is sound rather than imaginative. But it is a very competent and professional performance, not likely to be soon improved upon. The recorded sound is satisfactory though the orchestral balance tends to be string-heavy and (as I have indicated) bass-heavy though that is probably a conscious choice. The accompanying note is only adequate; the translation—the same goes for the Floridante complete set—is taken from the original libretto, whose eighteenth-century turns of phrase are a delight and indeed helpful in establishing the world to which the opera belongs. Rather awkwardly, the four versions in different languages are separately printed, so one cannot follow in Italian and English simultaneously.'

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