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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1739)
Rodelinda (1725) [3:22:00]
Rodelinda – Anna Caterian Antonacci (soprano)
Grimoaldo – Kurt Streit (tenor)
Garibaldo – Umberto Chiummo (baritone)
Eduige – Louise Winter (mezzo)
Bertarido – Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor)
Unulfo – Artur Stefanowicz (counter-tenor)
Flavio – Tom Siese (silent role)
Jean-Marie Villegier (director)
Nicolas de Lajartre and Pascale Cazales (set designers)
Patrice Cauchetier (costume designer)
Bruno Boyer (lighting designer)
Humphrey Burton (video director)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/William Christie
Recorded Glyndebourne 1998
WARNER MUSIC VISION 3984-23024-2 1DVD [202:00]


Handel’s Rodelinda was written for the same cast who sang in the premiere of his opera Tamerlano; in fact Handel produced a trio of masterpieces (Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda) in under twelve months. The presence of tenor Borosini, who had sung Bajazet in Tamerlano encouraged Handel, again, to create a role for a tenor, Grimoaldo, of far greater significance than was usual in Handelian opera seria.

This production of Rodelinda originated at the Glyndebourne Festival, the second in their recent trio of Handel opera productions; the others are Peter Seller’s production of the oratorio Theodora and David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare. Here, Rodelinda is directed by Jean-Marie Villegier; but all three productions have in common an element of crowd pleasing; the attempt to re-interpret Handel’s stage works for the Glyndebourne audience.

Rodelinda has had quite significant exposure in the post-war Handel revival because the plot is rather more direct than that of some opera seria and has at its heart the testing of the loving marital relationship between Rodelinda (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and her husband Bertarido (Andreas Scholl), tested almost to destruction by Grimoaldo (Kurt Streit) and Garibaldo (Umberto Chiummo).

Given the central role of Rodelinda and Bertarido’s relationship and the directness with which Handel portrays it, it would be possible to imagine a production of the opera which told the story in a relatively straightforward fashion. It could still stick to general opera seria conventions and be gripping as drama for an audience more used to Verdi or Puccini, especially in a performance as musical and as powerful as this.

But Villegier, set designers Nicolas de Najartre and Pascale Cazales, and costume designer Patrice Cauchetier set the opera in a world inspired by early cinema. The stylish sets and costumes (and makeup) are all black and white, at first causing you to wonder whether your TV is acting up. To go with this, Villegier has encouraged a stylised, over-dramatic acting style from the singers so that the opera looks like a piece of silent film. The result is surprisingly convincing as a visual drama, but I did not find it very helpful in terms of presenting the drama of Handel’s opera.

Handel gives each of the major characters a remarkable series of arias which enables us gradually to get to know them; this is the strong point of opera seria, the gradual delineation of character through a series of contrasting arias. But this presupposes that we accept the theatrical characters as real, suffering people. Thanks to Villegier’s stylised presentation, this works only up to a point. That it does at all is thanks to the magnificently powerful performances given by this superbly strong Glyndebourne cast.

Antonacci makes a strong Rodelinda, no shy retiring flower she, regal and implacable when necessary; rich of voice and passionate of utterance she makes very believable her journey through despair, desperation and hope. She looks very glamorous in the sequence of stunning frocks that Cauchetier designed for her. She undoubtedly knows how to use the elaborate baroque vocal line for expressive purposes, but I found her voice a little too vibrato-laden for my taste. When I heard this production live it was Emma Bell in the title role and Bell’s more focused vocal delivery was more to my taste.

In the opening scenes Villegier very effectively establishes Streit’s Grimoaldo and Chiummo’s Garibaldo as the villains of the piece with Garibaldo driving. Grimoaldo is a weak character, impelled by Garibaldo, and it is important that this is credibly established as it was here. Later in the production, Streit beautifully conveyed Grimoaldo’s weakness and hesitation. Chiummo, on the other hand, portrayed Garibaldo as almost a caricature of evil; perhaps Villegier’s stylised conception of the production did not help. He seems to have envisioned Garibaldo as the evil Nazi officer. But surely Garibaldo is more chilling if less over the top; still Chiummo did all that the producer required very creditably with much posturing, including managing to sing with a lighted cigarette at the side of his mouth.

The part of Ediuge (Bertarido’s sister) is a tricky one. Her part is not deeply written but she opens the opera being ambitious and domineering and must make a journey from an equivocal relationship with Grimoaldo to disdain and support for Bertarido. Louise Winter sang Ediuge’s music beautifully with a lovely, shapely line, but her disdainful manner was not always echoed in her voice. This was Winter’s problem throughout the opera: her voice did not quite make the dramatic journey that her character did.

These opening scenes were extremely restless visually; something exacerbated by the camera’s need to focus on a couple of characters on the stage. There were many times when I wished the stage business would just calm down and leave us to appreciate the music.

Andreas Scholl’s first scene was so dark and shadowy that it was difficult to see his face which was a shame as his performance of Dove Sei was wonderful; a lovely sense of line and shapely phrase allied to a passionate, focused delivery. Unfortunately he looked a little bizarre with his pale white make-up and dark, black hair and beard. In his second scene Scholl’s performance is not quite as stunning, but then he did have to crawl around the floor.

For these more tragic scenes, Villegier thankfully quietened the production down and Antonacci’s Ombre piante, sung alongside what she thinks is Bertarido’s tomb, was superb.

As Grimoaldo, Streit showed a good sense of style and line, but unfortunately his passage-work was sometimes a little smudged. His 2nd Act aria Prigioniera was lovely, beautifully conveying Grimoaldo’s soft centre. It made a fine contrast with Chiummo’s grim Tirannia aria.

Also in Act 2, Scholl produced a hauntingly beautiful Con rauco mormorio, though it was ironic that Villegier chose to set an aria full of lovely nature painting on a dark, bleak stage. The brief reconciliation between Rodelinda and Bertarido was haunting but for much of the act there was too much business and plotting.

This culminates in Act 3 when Winter’s Ediuge and Artur Stefanowicz’s Unulfo are plotting to free the imprisoned Bertarido. Villegier inserts much laughable stage-business centred on a tea trolley. For all his sensitive characterisation of Rodelinda and Bertarido’s plight, this desire to introduce a comic element into the sub-character’s plotting means we can’t take the opera quite seriously enough.

It does not help that the character of Unulfo is a little bit redundant. Necessary dramatically, Unulfo’s part was made substantial as it was sung by the second castrato in Handel’s company, Pacini (who had sung the title role in Tamerlano). This means that Unulfo’s dramatically unnecessary arias are prime territory for a producer looking to perk up the stage action. This carried over to Scholl’s prison scene, when the sudden appearance of a sword caused an audience laugh. Still, Scholl’s performance was superb here.

The part of Bertarido was written for Senesino, who specialised in roles which called for long lyrical lines, his characters are often lovelorn. Scholl handles this aspect of the character very well and the music seems to suit the timbre of his voice. But for the resolution to Rodelinda and Bertarido’s problems, a triumphal aria is needed and Scholl rose to the occasion brilliantly producing fine trumpet tone for Vivi tiranno.

This triumphal ending is made all the more poignant as earlier on in the act, Rodelinda again thinks that Bertarido is dead and Antonacci’s grief at this point was palpable.

For all my complaints about the production style, this DVD works because the principals all give strong performances. Antonnacci and Scholl in particular make the strength of Rodelinda and Bertarido’s relationship strongly believable and the key to the whole drama.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie give a fine performance, imbuing Handel’s accompaniments with the necessary crispness and bounce.

In terms of extras, the DVD is a little disappointing; there is a printed plot summary and you can select individual scenes but that is about it, DVD’s of commercial films usually come with far more.

For its musical values alone this DVD is highly recommendable. For many people, the production values will not be the stumbling block that they are for me and I hope that the disc will generate new admirers for what is one of Handel’s finest operas.

Robert Hugill

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