George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Rodelinda – Anna Dennis (soprano)
Bertarido – Christopher Lowrey (countertenor)
Grimoaldo – Thomas Cooley (tenor)
Eduige – Franziska Gottwald (mezzo-soprano)
Garibaldo – Julien Van Mellaerts (countertenor)
Unulfo – Owen Willetts (countertenor)
FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)
rec live, 9 September 2021, Deutsches Theater Göttingen, Germany
Italian libretto with English and German translations enclosed
Reviewed as download from press preview
ACCENT ACC26416 [3 CDs: 197]
It was on 26 June 1920 at Stadttheater Göttingen that Oskar Hagen conducted Rodelinda for the first time in almost 180 years, and thus started the renaissance of Handel’s operas, which is still in full swing. So it is logical that the 100th anniversary of this event is celebrated in this theatre, since then renamed Deutsches Theater Göttingen. I suppose, though the liner notes say nothing about it, that the intention was to launch this production in 2020, but the pandemic upset the plans. Anyway, we can be happy that it came into being with one year’s delay, and to judge from the ovations it fell on fertile ground. It shall also be noted that three numbers that Handel composed for the reprise performances in late 1725 are here inserted into the premiere version.
The story is as complicated as most baroque operas’ are, but it is logical and easy to follow, and it makes sense, both dramatically and psychologically. Briefly it goes like this: “Grimoaldo defeated Bertarido 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 ending, and all the characters unite in a short jubilant chorus.”
Rodelinda was composed for some of the most famous singers in the world at that time, and the technical demands are hair-raising. But it is not only a question of virtuosity. The musical value is high in every number, and the melodies are memorable. The soloists are also requested to be good actors and much of the drama takes place in the recitatives. One advantage with this recording is that it is live from one actual performance, the participants are deeply inside their roles and experience the heat of the moment, something that is difficult to feel in a studio recording. The reverse side of the coin is that there are stage noises that can be disturbing for the listener who cannot refer the sounds to a specific situation when one hasn’t the visuals. There is also a risk that the central characters can tire towards the end of the performance. Consider that Rodelinda has eight arias, most of them long and testing, two duets and kilometres of recitative to handle, and Bertarido almost as much. Fortunately, the possible pitfalls are largely avoided on this recording. Sound-wise everything is OK: balance between voices and orchestra is ideal, there are no drop-outs due to stage movements and the blend of the orchestra is homogenous. Bangs and other stage noises are of course unavoidable, but I’ve heard much worse. Applause is reduced to a minimum within acts, only two arias are cheered: Grimoaldo’s intense and dramatic Tuo drudo č mio rivale in the second act, and Bertarido’s virtuoso bravura exhibition Vivi, tiranno! in the third. It was also interesting to note that the long, sad and beautiful duet with Rodelinda and Bertarido, that closes act 2, was so moving that there was a long silence before the applause somewhat hesitantly started. Certainly an homage to the quality of the production as well as the sensitive audience.
FestspielOrchester Göttingen, founded in 2006 and containing specialists in historical performance practice, many with a background in various prestigious early music ensembles, is an excellent group and their rapport with musical director since 2012, Laurence Cummings, is impeccable. Choices of tempi seem ideal, and the recitatives are handled with great theatricality. In the title role Anna Dennis is excellent and often sings with beautiful silvery tone. She was hailed for her “riveting stage-presence” by BachTrack after this performance, and this also shines through in this sound-only recording. She is no doubt on the same level as Lucy Crowe on the recent Linn recording under Harry Bicket (review). Christopher Lowrey’s Bertarido is also very good, technically accomplished – listen to Vivi, tiranno! (CD 3 tr. 13); Expressive and beautiful of tone – Con rauco mormorio (CD 2 tr. 11). Still, he can’t quite compete with Iestyn Davies (Bicket) and Franco Fagioli (review) on Diego Fasolis recording on Dynamic, but he runs them close. Thomas Cooley is an expressive and elegant Grimoaldo, Franziska Gottwald as Eduige has a beautiful darkish mezzo-soprano, Owen Willetts as Bertarido’s trustworthy friend Unulfo is another well-schooled countertenor. The problem with him is that his tone is so similar to Bertarido’s that it is difficult to tell them apart when they are in dialogue – which they are quite often. Julien Van Mellaerts, who sings the role of the crook Garibaldo, is also indicated as countertenor in the cast list, but he is in fact the same baritone as the one singing on the recent twofer with the complete songs by Samuel Barber (review). There he was admirably smooth in Dover Beach, here he is mostly coarse and ugly-toned – which of course suits his unsympathetic character, so it may be that it is intentional.
To sum things up: there are three relatively recent recordings of Rodelinda, one of the greatest of baroque operas. All three have a lot of merits. Fasolis and Cummings are live recordings, which may disqualify them to some readers. Fasolis has the supreme Bertarido in Franco Fagioli and also an excellent Rodelinda, Cummings has Anna Dennis, who challenges Lucy Crowe on the Bicket set, and a generally good cast overall. For me Harry Bicket’s studio recording gets the palm for a recording and cast without weaknesses. Cummings has the advantage of being recorded live, providing a sense of the heat of the moment and theatricality. No one will regret buying any of these three – and Rodelinda is so good an opera that it is well worth owning in multiple recordings.