In a 12-month period from February 1724 to February 1725, George Frideric Handel premiered three of his most sensational Italian operas — a pair of tense thrillers, Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, capped by a third blockbuster, a frenzied political psychodrama, Rodelinda. The 40-year old composer was at the top of his game. His self-directed, privately funded stage company, the brash, hyperbolically named Royal Academy of Music, was turning healthy box office profits. Continental superstars, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, mezzo Faustina Bordoni and the legendary Sienese castrato, Senesino, among them, all swept into the English capital in the wake of George Frideric’s far-reaching recruitment drive. The West End was awash with Handelian hits.
The river of opportunity was, of course, inevitably destined to run dry. By 1740, trendy Londoners had wholeheartedly abandoned opera seria for less opulent Baroque vocal diversions. Handel dutifully responded, reinventing himself in the wake of a debilitating stroke as king of the English oratorio. Incredibly, it would not be until the dawn of the early music movement in the mid 20th century that the endlessly versatile maestro’s earlier gilded classics would be revived.
Lending its support to what has become an increasingly prevalent contemporary programming trend, Toronto’s pioneering chamber opera producer, Voicebox: Opera in Concert, brought Handel to life in a dynamic minimalist presentation of an ageless masterpiece last Sunday. Rodelinda may certainly have loomed larger on the local opera scene in the past but its overarching theme of corruption vs virtue has never been more clearly articulated than in OIC’s stark, darkly dramatic rendering.
The dense, violent profile of ambition run amuck, libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym loosely based on a then near century-old play by the venerable French tragedian Pierre Corneille, chronicles one woman’s heroic struggle to endure in the face of a raging storm of suffering and abuse.
The prevailing real-life back story is as broadly familiar as it is historically obscure.
Lombardy, 1650. Bertarido, Duke of Milan, combative heir to the troubled kingdom, is presumed dead, betrayed in a fierce battle of fraternal succession by a treacherous nobleman, Grimoaldo, who has seized the throne.
Rodelinda, Bertarido’s faithful wife, staunchly resists Grimoaldo’s pressure to marry him. Grimoaldo’s deceitful counsellor, Garibaldo, seeking to legitimize his secret designs to snatch the crown for himself, slyly courts Bertarido’s sister, Eduige, Grimoaldo’s intended bride-to-be.
Elsewhere in the royal palace, a furtive figure lurks in the shadows of a memorial built to honour Bertarido’s memory. Unulfo, the King’s closest friend and confidant, approaches, greeting the stranger as none other than the surviving monarch-in-waiting who only he knows is alive and well. Rodelinda approaches, deep in mourning. Warning Bertarido to bide his time until Grimoaldo can be dispatched, Unulfo and the King watch as Garibaldo enters to warn the grieving queen that Grimoaldo will slay her son if she continues to refuse his proposal of marriage. Helpless and frightened, Rodelinda relents. Bertarido is shocked by her willingness to disavow him so readily.
Garibaldo and Eduige conspire to topple Grimoaldo from power though Garibaldo suspects their alliance is a shaky one born of Eduige’s bitter feelings of unreciprocated love.
Rodelinda returns to present Grimoaldo with a challenge of her own, staring down the bullying duke, daring him to murder her son then and there before her very eyes. Horrified and repulsed, Grimoaldo quickly backs away from the confrontation.
Meanwhile, aimlessly wandering, lost in thought, Eduige encounters Bertarido. Overjoyed to discover him alive, she assures her brother that Rodelinda cherishes him more deeply than ever and, when Unulfo arrives with Bertarido’s elated spouse, vows to help him secure his family’s safety. Grimoaldo brings the touching reunion to an abrupt end, however, when he discovers Bertarido and Rodelinda embracing and sentences the former to die.
Eduige and Unulfo devise a plan to help Bertarido escape execution by smuggling a sword into the prison cell where Bertarido is being held. Hearing someone enter, Bertarido lashes out. Wounded, though not gravely, Unulfo escorts him to safety via a secret passageway. Spying the lingering patch of blood, Rodelinda and Eduige fear the worst.
Alone in the palace garden, exhausted and wracked with remorse for his past crimes, Grimoaldo falls into a fitful sleep where he is discovered by Garibaldo. Drawing his sword, Garibaldo is about to murder him when Bertarido chances upon the scene, killing the brutal assailant. Flinging his bloody blade at Grimoaldo’s feet, Bertarido defies the usurper to strike down his rescuer. Grimoaldo humbly surrenders and, overcome by gratitude, restores Bertarido to his throne, pledging to marry Eduige as promised. Forgiveness reigns. A chorus of joy rises to the heavens.
Moral discourse. Liberationist manifesto. Feminist proclamation. Rodelinda blazes with energy and purpose. Psychological verismo prevails as it does in so much of Handel’s choral work. Characters are sharply drawn, motive and action distinctly credible. Heroes and villains, the good and the compromised, players in a dangerous game of domination radiate authenticity. Ruthlessly self-seeking Garibaldo; weak-willed, guilt-ridden Grimoaldo; bitter, twisted Eduige — portraits of the damaged and the damned form a moody gallery. But it is Rodelinda, of course, forever morally upright despite endless persecution, who consistently holds the focus of our attention.
Handel’s operas are remarkably rich in depictions of strong, independent women. Ariodante’s embattled princess, Alcina’s enraged sorceress, Giulio Cesare’s uncompromising Egyptian queen, the composer clearly felt impelled to elevate his heroines to new heights. Rodelinda stands as arguably the most forceful of his female protagonists, a remarkably modern persona, unbowed by disaster, unconquered by fate. In an age only nominally devoted to reason, Rodelinda upholds a basic overarching truth. A woman, quite simply declares the composer, commands her own destiny.
That Opera in Concert so successfully revealed the depth of Handel’s fretful ideals on its spare Jane Mallett Theatre stage stripped of sets and costumes, employing only minimal props, spoke not only to the enterprising young cast’s spirit of engagement but, equally potently, to the timelessness of George Frideric’s humanity.
Tirelessly innovative, Handel embodied a deceptively effortless ability to fuse drama and music into an organic whole, his score channeling and amplifying the flood of pointed sentiment swirling through his tangled narratives. Rodelinda is a text book study in the canny composer’s eternally adaptable technique. The musical elaboration is stunning, frequently dazzling, eternally vibrant.
Piloting a polished, compact 11-player ensemble, conductor Larry Beckwith, leading from first violin, superbly charted Handel’s unapolgetically showy score, helming an orchestral performance of great beauty and refinement. Period continuo — harpsichord, theorbo and bassoon — was particularly noteworthy; orchestral melody and harmony luxurious, tempi consistently sensitive. Extensive timing cuts, admittedly all but unavoidable given Voicebox’s downsized concert format, were regrettably not always as judiciously applied as might be hoped. Several exquisite arias da capo — Unulfo’s glorious Fra tempeste funeste a quest’ alma (“Through all storms, that wreck my breast a calm of joy at length appears”) included — passed almost unnoticed.
Singing the title role, soprano Christina Raphaelle Haldane brought an intense, unaffected approach to her vocal depiction of brave Rodelinda, her mellow, soulful style movingly mirroring the queen’s grace and nobility. Handel’s poignant, inexpressibly tender Act II air Ritorna, o care e dolce mio tesoro (“Return my dear, my life return, return my joy, my treasure”), Rodelinda’s heartbreaking outburst on learning her husband lives was lovingly rendered with a sense of tearful relief.
Appearing as Rodelinda‘s conscience-plagued antagonist, singer actor Charles Sy crafted a finely detailed Grimoaldo, his clear, affective tenor partnered by stormy theatrical manners masterfully nuanced — a taut, insightful characterization tingling with tension.
Last seen on the Voicebox: Opera in Concert stage in Orlando in February 2013, gifted Handelian, counter-tenor David Trudgen, gave an exquisitely expressive performance as the simmering Bertarido. Endowed with a ringing stratospheric top and glowing prismatic colours, this is a voice of remarkable power, valiant, towering, thrillingly dramatic. Trudgen’s Dove sei, amato bene (“Where is my beloved”), Handel’s soaring Act I plaint, utterly electrified.
Master of the arched eyebrow and shifty glance, baritone Alexander Dobson sang a wickedly delicious Garibaldo, his rich, ample instrument honeyed, hearty and seductive. Mezzo-soprano Gena van Oosten appeared as Eduige endowing her character with deep, dusky notes of vengeance. Fellow mezzo Meagan Larios was a vivacious Unulfo, sparkling and engaging.
“I should be sorry,” Handel once famously said of his worshipful audience, “if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.” Opera in Concert is owed a grateful round of applause for gifting us with with a chance to revisit one of the composer’s most transformative works. This Rodelinda profoundly moved.
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Photo: George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner, circa 1726, National Portrait Gallery, London