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GRAMOPHONE (07/2022)
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Reviewer :
Richard Wigmore

Perhaps it was the superficial similarity to Fidelio – a virtuous wife unwavering in heroic devotion to her husband – that made Oskar Hagen choose Rodelinda, of all Handel operas, for his pioneering Göttingen staging in 1920. What audiences heard in the Stadttheater was a grotesque travesty. Yet this was the first time a Handel opera had been performed since his death: a seminal moment, and the Handelian equivalent of Mendelssohn’s 1829 Berlin revival of a (heavily cut) St Matthew Passion.

The antithesis of the amoral Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda was a huge success on its premiere early in 1725, and was revived the following December. True to form, Handel composed new music for the revival, including two arias for the castratowith-attitude Senesino in the role of Rodelinda’s husband, Bertarido. For the planned Göttingen centenary anniversary production, held back a year because of Covid, Laurence Cummings largely opted for the December 1725 score. Which means we get Bertarido’s taunting bravura aria ‘Vivi, tiranno’ and the radiant love duet before the final coro, but also two numbers rarely heard: a melancholy E minor aria (‘Sono i colpi’) for Bertarido’s secret ally Unulfo, replacing a floridly extrovert setting of the same words; and Rodelinda’s poignant ‘Ahi, perche’, which ousted another lament, ‘Se ’l mio duol’. It’s hard to choose between them, and a pity to miss either.

The Rodelinda benchmark, for me, is Harry Bicket’s recent recording with a team of prime Handelians, using a text based on Handel’s original score plus ‘Vivi, tiranno’ and the love duet. Cummings his forces certainly give Bicket and co a run for their money. The live Göttingen recording, while perfectly acceptable, has slightly less clarity. There is intermittent clattering and crashing, and the odd unexplained sound effect. Occasionally – say, in Bertarido’s famous ‘Dove sei’ and the aching duet that ends Act 1 – a tempo can seem just too slow, so that the music seems to proceed bar by bar rather than in longer spans. But Cummings, a seasoned and sensitive Handelian, directs his firstrate period band with a vivid sense of colour, character and dramatic situation.

The Göttingen cast is uniformly strong. Combining purity and a touch of sensuous warmth, Anna Dennis excels in pathos – Rodelinda’s default mode. Lucy Crowe, for Bicket, is fiercer, with more incisive consonants, in ‘Morrai, sì’, where Rodelinda spits contempt at the repulsive Garibaldo. Words are not Dennis’s strong point. Yet her exquisitely floated line in the pastoral ‘Ombre piante’ and ‘Ritorna, o caro’ – surely a candidate for Handel’s loveliest siciliano – virtually silence criticism. Countertenor Christopher Lowrey is just as good as Bertarido. He rivals Bicket’s Iestyn Davies in mellifluous smoothness (a Senesino speciality) and inwardness, and arguably excels him in dramatic involvement. He finds an added ‘bite’ in his tone for a deeply moving prison scene, and his flamboyant, fearless ‘Vivi, tiranno’ properly brings the house down. In December 1725 Handel probably cut Bertarido’s other Act 3 showpiece, ‘Se fiera belva’. Cummings, unlike Bicket, follows suit.

Composed for the star tenor Francesco Borosini, the devious, vacillating, ultimately submissive usurper Grimoaldo is in some ways the opera’s most psychologically interesting role. Thomas Cooley’s graceful lyric tenor makes him rather more sympathetic than does Joshua Ellicott for Bicket. His singing, though, is always shapely and pleasing to the ear, not least his hushed, blanched tone as Grimoaldo lulls himself to sleep. Among subordinate roles, mezzo Franziska Gottwald, as Bertarido’s sister Eduige, sings her two arias agreeably, if a shade impersonally. But the dark-toned countertenor Owen Willetts, as Unulfo, and baritone Julien Van Mellaerts (billed in the booklet as a countertenor), as Garibaldo, are both excellent. Van Mellaerts makes Garibaldo far more than a pantomime baddie, epitomised by a subtle, insinuating ‘Di Cupido’ in which he expounds his ruthlessly cynical philosophy.

Confined to a single version of Rodelinda, it would still be Bicket. But Handel opera enthusiasts will, I suspect, want both recordings: for some exemplary Handel singing, for Cummings’s discerning direction and for the inclusion of Rodelinda’s grieving ‘Ahi perché’. Handel’s replacement arias are often inferior to the originals. Not here.

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