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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Rodelinda, Regina de’ Longobardi (1725) [135:26]
Sung in English
Joan Sutherland (soprano) – Rodelinda; Raimund Herincx (bass-baritone) – Garibaldo; Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) – Eduige; Margreta Elkins (mezzo-soprano) – Bertarido; Alfred Hallett (tenor) – Grimoaldo; Patricia Kern (mezzo-soprano) – Unulfo
Philomusica of London/Charles Farncombe
rec. live radio broadcast 24 June 1959, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO144 [63:24 + 72:02]

Despite being one of the most successful of the Italian operas Handel brought to London in the earlier part of his career, “Rodelinda” has a relatively thin discography, with only four extant studio recordings in the original Italian. Like all of Handel’s opera, it fell into desuetude before its 20C revival but its rarity might also be partly because the demands of the eponymous lead role, written for coloratura diva Francesca Cuzzoni, are so daunting. It was a vehicle for Renée Fleming at the Met in the mid 2000’s, but it was Joan Sutherland who led the way with this live performance in English with the Handel Opera Society in 1959, confirming the super-star status gained by her appearances earlier that year in “Lucia di Lammermoor” conducted by Tullio Serafin.

My MusicWeb International colleague Göran Forsling has written an approving review of a live 2010 performance on the Dynamic label and I refer you to it for more information on the background and history of the work.

This is a radio broadcast of a cut performance in the “wrong” language, but the best music is retained, the English translation is apt and skilful, and we are in any case accustomed by the oratorios to hearing Handel sung in English. Besides, the singing is simply stupendous – and not just from Sutherland. The cast includes a twenty-five-year-old Janet Baker, already a mightily impressive artist but with the freshness of youth in her mezzo-soprano. Sutherland’s mezzo compatriot, Margreta Elkins, sings the role of Bertarido, first undertaken by the great castrato Senesino. She has a rich voice with an old-fashioned fast vibrato; nowadays, we encounter fine countertenors like Andreas Scholl or David Daniels in that role, but Elkins sings it with great pathos and control. Raimund Herincx’ baritone is in fine fettle and he cuts an imposing figure, managing his fast music creditably. Tenor Alfred Hallett is audibly stretched by the demands of the role of Grimoaldo but manages it without embarrassment and with considerable energy. Completing a trio of fine mezzo-sopranos onstage is Patricia Kern in the supporting role of Unulfo, originally also written for a castrato.

Sutherland’s pyrotechnic facility in her big arias astonishes. I recently reviewed her 1961 Met Lucia and marvelled at the fluency and purity of her singing there; she is if anything even more confident in Handel and furthermore her diction is commendably clear.

The orchestral playing is warm and generously phrased, the conducting well sprung and alert, without the “plogginess” which can afflict performances before the ongoing re-assessment of appropriate period practice.

The plot is the usual silly, convoluted nonsense with some incomprehensible motivation and a conventional happy ending whereby the guilty are punished and the good rewarded, but it is the music and the manner in which it embodies the emotion of the moment which count.

The sound is, as usual with Pristine, excellent for a recording of this provenance. There is still a trace of pre-echo but very little fluctuation in tape speed and the “Ambient Stereo” processing has put a bit of space around the voices without sounding artificial. There is no libretto but it is not required, as the English is admirably clear and, to quote the note on the reverse of the case, “Track titles [are] shown in the original Italian to aid navigation, comparison and score-following”; fair enough.

Lovers of great singing of baroque music who are tolerant of pre-period style need not hesitate.

Ralph Moore

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