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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
The Handel Collection
Rodelinda (1725)
Rodelinda – Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
Bertarido – Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor)
Grimoaldo – Kurt Streit (tenor)
Garibaldo – Umberto Chiummo (bass)
Eduige – Louise Winter (mezzo)
Unulfo – Artur Stefanowicz (counter-tenor)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/William Christie
Jean-Marie Villégier (director)
rec. Filmed at Glyndebourne, June 1998
Region Code 2, 3, 4, 5; Aspect Ratio 4:3, LPCM Stereo [202:00]
Theodora (1749)
Theodora – Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Didymus – David Daniels (counter-tenor)
Irene – Lorraine Hunt (mezzo)
Septimus – Richard Croft (tenor)
Valens – Frode Olsen (bass)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/William Christie
Peter Sellars (director)
rec. Filmed at Glyndebourne, June 1996
Region Code 2, 3, 4, 5; Aspect Ratio 4:3, LPCM Stereo [207:00]
A Night With Handel (1996)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
Rosa Mannion (soprano)
Claron McFadden (soprano)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Christopher Robinson (counter-tenor)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Harry Bicket
Region Code 2, 3, 4, 5; Aspect Ratio 4:3, LPCM Stereo [51 mins]
WARNER CLASSICS 505186532732 [3 DVDs: 460:00] 


Experience Classicsonline

Warner have often had an eye to the timely re-release and here they make a canny but very welcome addition to this year’s Handel commemorations. The two Glyndebourne films are very satisfying, especially Theodora, which must count as one of the greatest moments of recent Handel interpretation in this country. The unconventional Peter Sellars sets the Classical story in a corner of the modern USA where a draconian President orders that everyone worship the gods or face death, something that Christians Theodora and Didymus face up to in the final scene where they are executed by lethal injection. True, not all of Sellars’ staging is consistent or satisfying, but there are some marvellous and memorable images, not least the sight of heavily armed American soldiers throwing their weight around. That they trample over civil liberties while wearing orange jumpsuits has taken on an added edge for audiences in the post-Guantanamo era. The use of gesture is highly stylised and will not please everyone, but it is all of a piece with the powerful acting which Sellars elicits from the cast who all buy into his vision with enthusiasm and dedication. There is little staging to speak of, but the most powerful scene is the prison in Act 2 which shows a darkened stage with a square of light in which Theodora herself is confined. It is here that Dawn Upshaw is at her finest, too. Her clear, pure voice is ideally suited to this untainted heroine and she sings with unaffected tenderness in Act 1, but in Act 2 we see her facing the horrible prospect of being raped for her faith and Upshaw conveys first terror and then transcendence in her voice as well as in her acting. It is quite extraordinary that she can sing at all in view of the contortions she is asked to pull! David Daniels’ counter-tenor is, if anything, even more beautiful. He has a purity of tone and an other-worldly grace which is really quite disarming, and he continually shows remarkable breath control in the way that he is able to spin out a long Handelian phrase without a break. Frode Olsen’s thunderous bass is just right for the authoritative role of the President, while Richard Croft’s light, flexible tenor is a model of great Handel singing. The finest performance of the evening, however, is given by the late lamented Lorraine Hunt. Her dark, husky mezzo fits Irene’s character of disconcerted nervousness but there is an understated beauty to her singing which is often stunning. Nowhere is this more so than in Act 1’s As with rosy steps the morn, when she faces up to the coming tribulation with steadfastness and decision. Her opening number in Act 3 attains similar heights. For me this only makes the tragedy of this great singer’s early death all the more poignant.

Rodelinda was the first Handel opera (as opposed to staged oratorio) that Glyndebourne ever staged. Musically speaking it is quite marvellous, though the production is rather dull. Villégier updates it to an unspecified tyrannical regime in the silent movie era of the 1930s and even tries to make it look like a black and white film. There is no colour at all in the production, just different hues of grey, and the pallid lighting means that parts of it are almost impenetrably dark! In Act 3 Bertarido remarks in his prison, “I cannot make it out for the darkness.” Too right! Mercifully, the singing is much more satisfying, especially from Andreas Scholl who here takes on his first Handel opera role, though this is hard to believe in the light of how thoroughly assured his performance is. His opening aria, Dove sei, which some may know in English as Art thou troubled, is astonishing in the purity and ravishing beauty of Scholl’s voice. This counter-tenor is never cold: in fact he manages warmth and beauty that few sopranos could manage in this role, and he has fantastic technical control to match. Next to him Anna Caterina Antonacci takes a while to warm up as Rodelinda and she is decidedly under the note for her first two arias in the opening scene. Things improve by the second act, though: her heroic Spietati aria is thrilling, as is the duet between her and Scholl at the end of the act, though one would perhaps want more creamy tone in Ritorna o cara. Kurt Streit’s tenor brings malice and character to the usurper Grimoaldo but his voice is always beautifully mellifluous and his Prisoner aria in Act 2 is quite lovely. Chiummo’s Garibaldo is dark and menacing, and he pulls off the not inconsiderable of singing one of his arias with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth! Louise Winter sings and acts well as Eduige and if Artur Stefanowicz’s Unulfo is somewhat watery then at least he makes a good contrast for Scholl. In both of these films William Christie proves himself to be one of the finest Handel interpreters we have, eliciting playing of buoyancy and verve from the always excellent OAE. 

A Night with Handel is a 1996 film from Channel 4 from the days when that broadcaster was far more interested in the arts than at present. Presented by Jonathan Keates and containing interviews with experts like Nicholas McGegan, it takes a selection of various arias and recontextualises them in a performance film set during one night in contemporary London. It looks and sounds good and while it probably isn’t something you would return to it’s very enjoyable and it would be a good gift for someone who is coming to Handel opera for the first time. The singers, especially Sarah Connolly, are all very good, except for Christopher Robinson whose countertenor is pallid and unexciting. 

So this is a good introduction to what Handel’s operatic gifts can do, even though only one of these discs is a conventional opera. It’s also not bad value because Discs 1 and 2 contain well over three hours of music each. Picture and sound quality are fine, though it’s a pity they’re only in PCM stereo.

Simon Thompson


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