NEW YORK – Handel’s opera Rodelinda is an 18th-century Game of Thrones. The men scheme for power, betray each other, and try to use women as pawns, oblivious to the fact that the women are running the show. When the English Concert performed the opera in a concert version on Dec. 10 at Carnegie Hall, everyone deserved to win the crown.
Written in 1725 to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, Rodelinda tells a convoluted tale of three men vying for the throne of Milan. Grimoaldo currently sits there by subterfuge. Garibaldo wants that seat for himself. The true king, Bertarido, has been in hiding; his faithful henchman Unulfo told everyone that he’s dead.
Bertarido’s wife, Rodelinda, thinks she’s a widow, and Grimoaldo hopes to marry her to solidify his power. Eduige, the true king’s sister, is in love with Grimoaldo, who spurns her because she can’t help him. When Rodelinda learns that her husband is still alive, she and Eduige set a trap for his enemies and get him his throne back. Only Garibaldo, the most conniving and least repentant of the bunch, ends up dead; that’s a low body count for a historical opera seria.
At its premiere, the roles of Rodelinda and Bertarido were sung by soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and alto castrato Senesino. This was one of three operas Handel wrote for the superstar duo (Tamerlano and Giulio Cesare were the others). It’s hard to imagine they were more thrilling than soprano Lucy Crowe and countertenor Iestyn Davies, the leads of Rodelinda at Carnegie’s Isaac Stern Auditorium.
Crowe is impossible to categorize. She has the depth and power of a Verdi soprano, the ornaments of a Monteverdi specialist, and the stage presence of a Laurence Olivier. She acts every word and every note, often swaying and weaving her whole body or stretching out her arms like an archangel’s wings. The return of the A sections in her da capo arias were so wild that it was almost alarming to hear the B section come to an end: Who knows what will follow! Only once, in Act 2’s “Spietati, io vi giurai,” when Rodelinda dares the spineless Grimoaldo to kill her son, did Crowe lose control and get a bit screamy during the improvised cadenzas.
Bertarido is not in most of Act 1, since everyone but Unulfo believes him dead. When Davies finally came onstage, he stopped the show with his delicate, heart-wrenching rendition of the aria “Dove sei?”— one of two times Handel knew he had written something so gorgeous for the character that he didn’t sully it with a recitative before the ritornello. It was a startling performance. No less astonishing was Davies’ mathematical yet acrobatic singing, as expressive as it was exact, during Act 3’s lightning-fast “Vivi, tiranno!”
There is only one duet in the whole opera, when Rodelinda and Bertarido are finally reunited. Crowe and Davies made it count: Although their styles are markedly different, they found a common ground that made their chemistry believable and their ornaments perfectly in sync.
The role of Grimoaldo is wishy-washy and frankly confusing, so tenor Eric Ferring can’t be faulted for not having a definable dramatic approach. His voice is reedy and pleasing, effective for both fiery rants and languid love songs. Yet he consistently struggled with rhythm in fast passages, never quite riding the groove set by conductor-harpsichordist Harry Bicket and the orchestra.
Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice sang beautifully as the rejected Eduige, especially in her low register. She offered her best work in the short third-act aria, “Quanto più fiera tempesta freme.” As the irredeemable Garibaldo, who’s trying to use everyone to his own advantage, bass-baritone Brandon Cedel maintained weight and suppleness in a voice range that late-Baroque composers, including Handel, often forced to leap around widely and quickly.
If you enjoy countertenors, Rodelinda is the opera for you. Besides the great music for Bertarido, Handel also supplied some very fine arias for the role of Unulfo. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, 28, is a singer to watch. In general, his delivery was unforced and highly expressive, although some of the more difficult ornaments seemed to leave him breathless.
By the third act, after more than three and a half hours, the relentless menu of recitative / da capo aria / recitative / da capo aria wore a bit thin. Handel didn’t even throw in a sinfonia or two for contrast. Nor is there a chorus; the ensemble finale sung by the five surviving characters was a cruel tease for what Handel might have added to the opera.
There were no costumes in this concert production, and the stage was bare, with the orchestra packed tightly in the center. The area on either side was so wide that there could have been choreography. Instead, there was the barest minimum of stage direction, often more of a distraction than a clarification. Despite singing about having a sword, Bertarido stabbed Unulfo (by accident) and Garibaldo (on purpose, and somehow fatally) with a three-inch plastic blade that made the audience laugh.
As excellent as the singers were, the English Concert itself was a star of this performance, and likely the reason the hall was nearly sold out. From the harpsichord, Bicket led his top-notch period instrumentalists with precision, warmth, and sensitivity. The Baroque flute and recorders, raised on a dais at the back to balance their muted tone against the strings, were a treat to the ear every time they were featured. Concertmaster Nadja Zwiener and trumpeter Mark Bennett both had turns to shine as soloists during Handel’s imaginatively orchestrated ritornellos.
Bicket and his band bring Handel’s dramatic vocal music to Carnegie once a year. Luckily, there’s plenty of material for them to choose from.