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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Rodelinda, Regina de’ Longobardi (1725)
Sonia Ganassi (mezzo) – Rodelinda; Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor) – Bertarido; Paolo Fanale (tenor) – Grimoaldo; Gezim Myshketa (bass-baritone) – Garibaldo; Marina De Liso (mezzo) – Eduige; Antonio Giovannini (counter-tenor) – Unulfo
Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia/Diego Fasolis
rec. Palazzo Ducale, Martina Franca, August 2010
Italian libretto with English translation available at
the Dynamic website DYNAMIC CDS7724/1-2 [79:10 + 77:34]
The 1720s was Handel’s great decade as an opera composer. He finished fifteen of them during those ten years. True, he wrote 17 operas during the 1730s, but his greatest works – with a few exceptions – belong to the 1720s. Giulio Cesare, arguably his greatest, was premiered on 20 February 1724. It was followed by Tamerlano on 31 October the same year and less than four months later, on 13 February 1725, Rodelinda appeared. The librettist for all three was Nicola Haym, with whom Handel cooperated on at least another six operas.
Handel had at his disposal three of the foremost singers of the time. The title role for Rodelinda was sung by Francesca Cuzzoni, who the previous year had been Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. Bertarido was sung by the castrato Francesco Bernardi, better known under his alias "Senesino", and Grimoaldo was allotted to tenor Francesco Borosini, a singer with an extraordinarily wide range and reportedly a very good actor. Moreover Garibaldo was sung by Giuseppe Maria Boschi, an Italian bass who was engaged at Handel’s Royal Academy of Music between 1720 and 1728. He specialised in “rage arias” and mostly played rulers or villains. For these eminent artists Handel created a rich score with 32 musical numbers knit together with recitatives as was his wont, or rather the standardized pattern for the Neapolitan operas.
The story is based on the history of Perctarit, king of the Lombards in the 7th century but most of the action is fictionalized. Grimoaldo defeated Bertarido (Perctarit) and usurped the throne. Bertarido fled and is believed to be dead but his friend Unulfo knows that he is hiding in the vicinity. Grimoaldo is betrothed to Bertarido’s sister, Eduige, but he has also fallen in love with Rodelinda, Bertarido’s wife. The evil Garibaldo, who is Grimoaldo’s counsellor, plans to take the throne for himself. Bertarido returns in disguise and he and Rodelinda meet secretly. They are discovered by Garibaldo who throws Bertarido in prison. Unulfo and Eduige manage to release him. Grimoaldo tries to find rest in a garden where he falls asleep. Garibaldo finds him and is ready to kill him with his own sword, but then Bertarido appears and kills Garibaldo but spares Grimoaldo, who gives up his claims to the throne and finally asks Eduige to marry him. Happy end and all the characters unite in a short jubilant chorus.
Rodelinda was revived several times during Handel’s lifetime and was also played in Hamburg in the 1730s. Then it fell into oblivion, as did all Handel’s operas. It was not until 1920 in Göttingen that it was performed again, but then in heavily altered form, as the first in a series of Handel revivals by Oskar Hagen. Today it is performed fairly often and during the period 1 January 2014 – 31 December 2018 Operabase lists seven productions, two of them being concert performances. It has also been recorded a number of times, from a Westminster production in 1964 under Brian Priestman, today available from Deutsche Grammophon, via a 1985 recording under Bonynge for Decca, and Alan Curtis in 2004 on Archiv Produktion. A couple of years ago I reviewed a disc with the overture and 22 vocal numbers (more than 2/3 of the score) recorded live in Sydney in 2012 under the experienced Handelian Richard Bonynge. I wasn’t that enthusiastic and by and large the singing on the present set is preferable. Recorded live at the outdoor stage in Martina Franca there are is stamping and other noises and probably it was rather windy in August 2010. There is applause after practically every aria – well-deserved too — and they are quickly faded out.
The Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia play well and the balance between orchestra and singers is fully acceptable. I suspect that several of the names are unknown to many readers, but have no fear. The vocal standard is rather high. In the title role Sonia Ganassi has no fewer than eight arias and the only duet, and they cover all kinds of emotions. The opening aria, Ho perduto il caro sposo, where she laments the supposed loss of her husband, is beautifully sung. In fast arias, like L’empio rigor del fato (CD 1 tr. 4) her tone tends to become a bit squally when under pressure, but the intensity and identification is never in doubt and she impresses greatly throughout the performance. Her husband, Bertarido, is played by Franco Fagioli, and he is phenomenal. His first aria, the well-known Dove sei, amato bene? (CD 1 tr. 12) has been a favourite for more than fifty years and I have a lot of recordings of it but Fagioli surpasses all of them: beauty of tone, sensitive phrasing, personality. He is even more impressive in the virtuoso arias, most of all perhaps Vivi tiranno (CD 2 tr. 24). I suspect that this is the closest we can come to what the greatest castrati sounded like. His coloratura is absolutely stunning and the dramatic conviction is overwhelming. The other counter-tenor, Antonio Giovannini as Unulfo, is lighter, more lyrical but he too impresses. Marina De Liso makes the most of Eduige’s role and her coloratura singing is also impressive. Paolo Fanale, the usurper Grimoaldo, has a slightly irritating vibrato and his tone is rather unattractive but he is technically accomplished and has fine high notes. He can also sing very beautifully. Listen to his lyrical singing in Pastorello d’un povero armento (CD 2 tr. 22). The really evil character, Garibaldo, is sung by the young Albanian bass-baritone Gezim Myshketa. His tone is also unattractive but that is in line with the character and he has dramatic power to reckon with.
I found a lot to admire in this performance and will certainly return to it, not least for Franco Fagioli. For admirers of this phenomenal counter-tenor this set is a must.