MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Tuesday March 15th, 2022.
Welcome back friends, and welcome this week, once again, to the wonderful world of opera!
And this week, welcome to a rarely staged, beautiful, old fashioned, (not quite, yet almost, antediluvian), baroque, dramatic, 18th century opera, from the great, versatile, and highly acclaimed German composer, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), who while German, trained mostly, in various locations in Italy, and spent the greater part of his career in London.
A composer, Handel, whose genius was admired by iconic and legendary classical composers, such as: Bach (1685-1750), Mozart (1756-1791), and Beethoven (1770-1827).
Not only an original and gifted opera composer, Handel, developed a “high baroque” style, which brought Italian opera to its highest development.
Also a musical genre innovator, Handel, created as well, English oratorio and organ concerto genres, and thus, introduced a new style into English church music.
How lucky are we?
So welcome to Handel’s 1725, scintillating “Rodelinda” opera.
So what is “Rodelinda” about?
A brilliant, lively, baroque opera, in three acts, “Rodelinda”, in a nutshell, is about 7th century Lombardian king (Bertarido), and especially his wife, the queen (Rodelinda)’s political trials and tribulations, and the power of marital and family love, to find uplifting, and peaceful resolution for all.
Wow! wow! wow! and yay! yay! yay!
“Rodelinda”, sang in Italian, with a libretto from long time collaborator, Nicola Francesco Haym (with whom, Handel had also teamed up, at that time, for two other operas “Guilio Cesare” (1724), and “Tamerlano” (1724); for “Rodelinda” in 1725, Haym based his libretto on a Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) play, called “Pertharite, roi des Lombards” (1652).
And thanks to compelling drama, and gorgeous music, “Rodelinda” as an opera, proves to be incredibly deep, beautiful, and moving.
An incredible gem.
And “Rodelinda”, interestingly, displays a great number of short “conventional” arias, orchestrated to beautiful melodies from its era, called “da capo” arias, where an initial sang tune, is followed by a middle section, that precedes a “repeat” (of the music initially heard in the aria), allowing for quality ornamentation from the performers, to showcase their vocal mastery.
And “Rodelinda”, as many baroque operas of the time, was initially composed for various voices, and showcased often, for its major male roles, for singers called “castrati” (self explanatory), who were star performers at the time, and who could therefore, counter the change in range and timber, that puberty entails for boys, as they age.
Therefore, these “castrati” could amaze audiences by doing two things: often, holding notes for an extraordinary long amount of time, as well as, singing higher than a naturally matured male voice could.
What a feat!
And Francesco Bernardi (1686-1758) or “Senesino” as he become known, was a celebrated Italian contralto “castrato”, originally from Siena, particularly remembered today, for his long collaboration with Handel, and Handel’s librettist, Haym, including in “Rodelinda”.
Senesino’ voice and elocution, was described as follows, by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773), another German composer, flutist and flute maker of the late Baroque period:
“(Senesino) had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with a perfect intonation and an excellent shake. His manner of singing was masterly, and his elocution unrivaled. He sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articular and pleasing manner”.
Today, and since late 19th century, fortunately, countertenors, replace “castrati”, and use their falsetto voice in order to sing within the range most today, associate with the female voice, and it is just as beautiful!
Now let’s get back to Handel himself, for one minute, and let’s keep in mind, that three of Handel’s earlier Baroque operas, had made Handel a huge, highly acclaimed star, in the opera world, around Europe, with 1709 “Agrippina”, 1711 “Rinaldo”, and 1715 “Amadigi di Gaula”.
So let’s bear in mind, that Handel’s career success, was therefore, instrumental in bringing Italian operas to the British audiences, as his musical gifts encouraged great patronage from various British aristocrats, including King George I, another passionate opera lover (and a German native, like Handel).
Wow and yay!
And by the time, in his late thirties, Handel got to compose “Rodelinda” (1725), Handel was at the top of his career.
Also, keep in mind as well, that interestingly, while Handel’s great choral and orchestral works (in particular Handel’s “Messiah”, written a few years later, in 1741), proved immensely popular then, and still today; Handel’s operas,(including “Rodelinda”), on the other hand, even while immensely popular in his time, when they were staged, eventually, believe it or not, disappeared from the opera world, for almost two centuries, before reappearing on opera stages, in the 20th century.
Specifically, “Rodelinda”, started Handel’s opera revival, and was staged in Germany in the 1920.
Wow! and yay!
So, let’s now, get into more specifics, about “Rodelinda”‘s “drama”:
“Rodelinda”‘s convoluted plot, takes place in Italy, as mentioned earlier, in the 7th century, yet evoking at times, Greek tragedies, and revolves around the ambition, from various characters (and many, but not exclusively, from the same family), to claim/take the Milan throne, in the kingdom of Lombardy, during those early medieval times, after the current king of Lombardy and Milan (Bertarido), has been deposed by an ally (Grimoaldo), of his hostile brother (Gundeberto), killed in battle; and Bertarido having vanished, and “missing in action”, leaves behind, a queen (Rodelinda), and a young son (Flavio), in the hands of Grimoaldo.
And as a reward for defeating Bertarido, Grimoaldo was promised the hand of Bertarido’s sister, Eduige, granting Grimoalgo, a legitimate claim to the Milan throne.
Yet, Eduige, despite being in love with Grimoaldo, refuses to marry Grimoaldo, right then and there, while she is mourning a dead brother (Gundeberto), and another, “missing in action” (Bertarido).
And this “Rodelinda” opera, will paint a picture, of all of the kingdom’s characters, and in particular of its queen, Rodelinda, who will be particularly tested, and have to display incredible personal courage, and unwavering faith in the strength of family and marital ties, and who, after many twists and turns, and intense drama, will eventually be rewarded, as this epic story, finally, ends well, for all.
And yay! yay! yay!
Let’s get into the specifics of this political drama:
In Act I, Rodelinda (wife of missing in action deposed king of Lombardy, Bertarido and queen of Lombardy), and her son Flavio, are being held captive in the Palace.
Grimoaldo (who has deposed Bertarido, the “missing in action” king of Lombardy), as he enters, announces his intention to marry Rodelinda , to gain the throne. Furious, Rodelinda, refuses him and leaves. Eduige (sister of dead Gundeberto and of deposed king Bertarido) therefore, despite having postponed her decision many times, finally, and despite being still in mourning, offers her hand to Grimoaldo she loves, but despite his own feelings for her, Grimoaldo declines Eduige’s offer.
Garibaldo (who is Grimoaldo’s closest aide), propositions Eduige, hoping to gain for himself the throne, she does not discourage him but we learn, as Eduige leaves, that Garibaldo does it (propose), only out of ambition.
Bertarido (who is the “missing in action” deposed king of Lombardy) arrives at the stables where a uniform has been left, a soldier’s uniform for his disguise, by Unulfo (a member of Bertarido’s cabinet), from which (the stables) Betarido can see a memorial built in his honor by Grimoaldo to appease his followers.
Bertarido yearns for Rodelinda, but knows, he can’t reveal himself quite yet.
Bertarido’s meeting with Unulfo is then interrupted, when Bertarido sees Rodelinda, who has come to plant flowers at the memorial site, with their son.
Unulfo restrains Bertarido from reaching out to his family, when Garibaldo appears with an ultimatum from Grimoaldo, dictating Rodelinda to either wed Grimoaldo, or Garibaldo will kill her son.
Are you kidding?
Rodelinda is forced to agree to the wedding proposition, she takes back her son, lashes out at Garibaldo and disappears. Unulfo promises to find a resolution to this dilemma, while Bertarido, alone and disconsolate, grieves over Rodelinda’s seeming loss of faith, in him.
In Act II, in the palace’s library, Garibaldo again offers to take Eduige’s hand, but he sees from her response, that Eduige still loves Grimoaldo. Rodelinda appears then with her son, and assures Eduige that her son and his future, is her greatest concern. Rodelinda then, offers a truly idiotic offer (but that makes for good drama) an ultimatum to Grimoaldo: Rodelinda agrees to marry him, if Grimoaldo can kill her son, before her very eyes.
Are you kidding?
Her “ultimatum” works, and Grimoaldo backs down, and admires Rodelinda courage and constancy towards her “missing in action husband”; and Grimoaldo wonders if he can love Rodelinda, despite his own feelings for Eduige.
Are you kidding?
Garibaldo and Unulfo debate together, Grimoaldo’s options: Garibaldo thinks the throne can be taken at all costs, and Unulfo once alone, decides to take Rodelinda to Bertarido, and be optimistic about the future.
Walking near the stables, Eduige recognizes her “missing in action” brother, and king of Lombardy, Bertarido, and overjoyed, she tells him (Bertarido) about Rodelinda constancy. Unulfo brings Rodelinda to the stables and Bertarido is reunited with his Rodelinda.
Yet, Grimoaldo discovers them, and Bertarino exposes his true identity. Rodelinda denies it, to protect Bertarido, and confused Grimoaldo, orders Bertarido’s death, and leaves disconsolate and defeated, yet in love Rodelinda and Bertarido, to make their final farewells to each other.
So sad, tragic, and gripping!
In Act III, Eduige sends a servant to the dungeon, with a concealed weapon, for Bertarido.
Eduige and Unulfo plan for Bertarido’s escape, through tunnels, to be reunited with Rodelinda and their son, in the Palace gardens.
Grimoaldo enters with Garibaldo, who advises him to kill Bertarino, or lose the kingdom, but fortunately Grimoaldo has a conscience.
In the darkness of his cell, Bertarido strikes out at someone, he believes to be an assassin, yet, it is only Unulfo, who has come to help him; and though he is wounded, Unulfo manages to get Bertarido to change out of his clothes, and they escape.
Rodelinda then, arrives on site, near the bloody discarded clothes, and of course, imagines the worst.
At the foot of Bertarido’s memorial, Grimoaldo acknowledges his cruelty and guilt. Garibaldo attempts to assassinate Grimoaldo, Bertarido intervenes and Garibaldo is killed. Bertarido having saved Grimoaldo’s life, asks Grimoaldo if he intends to kill him anyway. Grimoaldo surrenders to Bertarido, wife, child and throne, and after apologizing to Eduige, who still loves him, and forgives him, everyone can celebrate a happy future.
A little convoluted perhaps, but this is opera, of course.
What to say of the production and the singers?
“Rodelinda”, despite telling a 7th century story, this year, once again, is staged in 18th century era, in Italy, in this “classic” Wadsworth production, which is when Handel lived.
Yet, I would have loved to see Handel’s “Rodelinda” set in a more modern era, to showcase how timeless this story is, and make it more appealing and modern even, for opera fans less familiar, with Handel’s work (even though I loved the gorgeous 18th century Palace library).
But that’s my preference.
Concerning the singers, all perfectly conducted, under the expert baton of Harry Bicket, I was especially impressed with South African soprano, Elza van den Heever, in the title role, whom I had admired in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Met, a few years ago: not only, does she have a beautiful and rich voice, she is also, an accomplished actress, which is key to this complex role, of a queen having to outwit various political intrigues.
Wow! and yay! yay! yay!
And my most favorite singer, by far, last Tuesday, was definitely the hyper talented, British countertenor, Iestyn Davies, whom I have admired countless times at the Met; recently, in Handel’s “Agrippina”, as in Muhly’s “Marnie”, or Ades’ “The Exterminating angel” and “Tempest”.
Wow! wow! wow!
Davies exudes such a flawless ease, and a perfect command of the inflections of his voice, a warmth and a quiet power. Just incredible! And truly magical!
Wow! wow! wow! and yay! yay! yay!
And regarding my favorite arias: two arias come to mind: the first aria is found in Act I: Bertarido sings as we meet him, of his deep longing to see again his wife, an incredibly moving aria.
Enjoy this excerpt from a few years ago, with the great Andreas Scholl singing Bertarido:
Just epic in its poetry and beauty!
And now, here is an incredible, and heartbreaking duet, between Bertarido and Rodelinda, at the end of Act II, during which Bertarido having just been arrested, and condemned to death, must make his final farewell to his wife Rodelinda.
So exceptionally beautiful and sad.
Enjoy this wonderful excerpt, from a few years ago, with Lucy Crowe as Rodelinda, and Bejun Mehta as Bertarido.
Just fabulous, and maybe one of my favorite opera duets ever!
So, to sum up my feelings about this gorgeous “Rodelinda” opera by Handel, admired last Tuesday, in great company: what a wonderful depiction of the power of marital love and family ties, to find peaceful and rewarding resolution for all, to complex political intrigue, and what graceful orchestration and gorgeous arias, demonstrating Handel’s seamless mastery of compelling melodies.
And not to be missed.
And wow! wow! wow!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊