Opera Seria in three acts. Running Time: 3 hours 15 minutes.
Portrait of Susannah Maria Cibber, often mistaken for Francesca Cuzzoni, the soprano who created the role of Rodelinda.
This opera was suggested to me by a fellow grad student about two years ago who is really into Handel. I got through the first act and dropped it because it is opera seria and I decided I didn’t like opera seria, but this may very well have been a mistake. I figure, since I probably know it better than any other Handel opera other than Giulio Cesare and Alcina (which bored me as a teenager), might as well review it! It is somewhat unusual: termed the most feminist opera Handel wrote, it has two strong female characters (particularly the title role who is a faithful wife with fortitude that would make Brünhilde blush from her personal inadequacy) but also requires a very strong tenor (a reason for it being so rarely revived in the eighteenth century was the lack of such tenors in England). For some reason audiences in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries loved castrati (the exception being the French who preferred for their high pitched singing males to still have their testicles). Why this was a thing makes me a little ashamed of my ancestors, who obvious kept their own testicles. Rodelinda does have two roles for alto castrati, but today these are performed by counter-tenors who basically do the same thing as castrati but with their reproductive organs intact, begging the question as to why castrati were caused to exist in the first place. In any case, the tenor is the villain, which is not totally unheard of today but was much more of a thing back in the eighteenth century. There are thirty-six musical numbers.
SETTING: Milan, circa 671. The dating is based on the fact that kings Grimuald and Garibald ruled Lombardy between 662 and 671, bookended by the two-part reign of Perctarit (or Berthari), who reigned from 661-662 and again in 671-688. It was he who was married to Rodelinde, our heroine. In the opera, Grimoaldo (tenor) defeated Bertarido (counter-tenor) and usurped the throne (although he had been called upon by Gundeberto, the brother of Bertarido, between whom their father had divided his kingdom in half, who had been mortally wounded in battle against his brother), imprisoning Rodelinda (soprano) and her son Flavio (mute). Failing to secure support in Hungary, Bertarido allows reports to circulate that he is dead, a ruse designed to catch his enemy off-guard in order to rescue his wife and son. Meanwhile Grimoaldo spurns his fiancee Eduige (contralto) who is the sister of Bertarido. His counsellor Garibaldo (bass) then declares his love for Eduige who promises him her hand in exchange for him having Grimoaldo killed.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (67 minutes)
0: The overture * is in three movements: first slow and regal, then faster, then stately again. Basically four and a half minutes of mild Water Music.
Scene 1: The apartments of Rodelinda.
5: Ho perduto il caro sposo Rodelinda mourns the loss of her husband *.
8: L’empio rigor del fato Rodelina rejects the advances of Grimoaldo, who offers her marriage and a return to the throne that is rightfully hers ** in a much more dark and lively aria.
14: Io già t’amai A vigorous tenor aria from Grimoaldo **, very good vocal work as he declares to Eduige, the sister of the husband of Rodelinda, King Bertarido, that he has never loved her and storms out. Garibaldo, his Councillor and the Duke of Turin (who seems to be more interested in Grimoaldo), declares his love for Eduige.
18: Lo farò, dirò spietato Eduige tells Garibaldo that she will give herself, and the throne, to him in exchange for vengeance on Grimoaldo **.
23: Di Cupido impiego i vanni A bit of effective Mickey-mousing ** as Garibaldo reveals that his love for Eduige is totally fake–he wants her throne! A good actor-bass with sex-appeal can make a dish of it.
Scene 2: A Cypress-grove, with memorial to Bertarido centre.
30: Dove sei, amato bene After a nice, placid orchestral intermezzo, Bertarido reads the epitaph his wife has set for him in the grove and longs to be with her once more ***. Handel well conveys the desire and longing of this otherwise happily married man.
39: Ombre, piante, urne funeste! Rodelinda has her own aria of marital desire *** as she weeps for her husband (who watches in the wings with his councillor Unulfo, another counter-tenor).
48: Morrai sì, l’empira tua testa Garibaldo arrives and gives Rodelinda an ultimatum: either she consents to marry Grimoaldo or her son will be executed. She definantly agrees ** but in exchange that Garibaldo himself be executed.
53: Se per te giungo Grimoaldo is told by Garibaldo about the deadly request Rodelinda has made in exchange for a promise of marriage. He tells him not to be worried **.
58: Sono i colpi Bertarido thinks that Rodelinda has forgotten him but Unulfo tells him not to worry *.
62: Confusa si miri But Bertarido is very worried, ending the act with an aria of furious despair **.
ACT 2: (64 minutes)
Scene 1: A great hall.
2: De’ miei scherni After confrontations between Garibaldo and Eduige and she and Rodelinda, Eduige swears vengeance for being slighted by everyone, but particularly Grimoaldo, who she wants dead *.
9: Spietati, io vi giurai Rodelinda makes an ultimatum with Grimoaldo. He must murder her son right in front of her, otherwise she can not marry him as she is the mother of the rightful king **. Girmoaldo is far too noble to even consider this demand and she flees with the boy.
15: Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena After Garibaldo tells Grimoaldo to go through with the murder, he rejects this and reveals that her courage and determination has caused her to fall even more deeply in love with her, although he now knows he has no chance of ever winning her love ***.
23: Tirannia gli diede il regno When Unulfo asks Garibaldo how he could possibly advise someone to kill a child he expresses his belief in the tyrannical nature of power *** in a vicious aria.
26: Fra tempeste funeste Unulfo tries to lighten things up with a mild little aria *.
Scene 2: Some spot on the castle grounds.
31: Con rauco mormorio Bertarido comes on in disguise ***. Eduige comes on and recognizes her brother. He reveals that he has only come back for his wife and child, the throne can go to Eduige for all he cares, but he worries that Rodelinda still wants him. Unulfo arrives and tells him that his wife definitely still loves him and promises to reveal this news to her. Both Eduige and Unulfo promise to help Bertarido.
40: Scacciata dal suo nido Bertarido rejoices at the idea of being reunited with Rodelinda ***.
Scene 3: The apartments of Rodelinda.
46: Ritorna oh care e dolce mio tesoro Rodelinda greets the news of her non-widowhood with a happy aria **. Bertarido arrives but quickly Grimoaldo arrives and discovers them, thinking that Bertarido is simply a lover Rodelinda has taken. Bertarido reveals his true identity, but Grimoaldo does not believe him but still orders that he be incarcerated.
53: Tuo drudo è mio rivale Bertarido expresses his rage in yet another furious aria ***.
58: Io t’abbraccio Now for something different: a duet *** as the spouses bid each other one last farewell.
ACT 3: (62 minutes)
Scene 1: A gallery in the castle.
2: Un zaffiro spirò After Eduige and Unulfo conspire to rescue Bertarido by sending him a sword and a key through a secret passage, Unulfo expresses his joy in yet another little aria *.
7: Quanto più fiera tempesta freme Eduige does some undercover work, retrieving a rope, a sword, and a gun from a trio of officers as only a princess could do **.
13: Tra sospetti, affetti ,e timori A dizzying aria *** from Grimoaldo after Garibaldo tells him to have Bertarido executed.
Scene 2: A prison cell.
18: Chi di voi fu più infedele Bertarido has a prison aria **. Eduige throws down a sack containing the sword and the key. In the darkness Unolfo arrives to release Bertarido but he stabs him. They then escape from the prison down the secret passage under the castle. Eduige brings Rodelinda and Flavio into the cell and discovering it empty, and thinking that the blood from Unolfo is actually that of Bertarido, they suspect that their husband/brother has already been executed.
24: Se ‘l mio vuol non è si forte Yet another great scene of marital devotion from Rodelinda ***.
Scene 3: A royal garden, in this production the same as Act 1 Scene 2.
34: Se fiera belva ha cinto Bertarido has bandaged up Unolfo and sings an exciting aria about freedom ***.
42: Pastorello d‘un povero armento Grimoaldo is tormented by remorse, but falls asleep **. Garibaldo comes on and tries to assassinate Grimoaldo but Bertarido shoots Garibaldo dead just as
48: Vivi tiranno! Bertarido congratulates Grimoaldo for being so bad **. With the legitimate royal family under arrest, it is not certain at this point what Grimoaldo will do with all of them. Unulfo and even Eduige are brought in to await… well I am not sure….
56: Mio caro bene! Grimoaldo realizes that he owes his life to Bertarido and we realize that throughout this saga Bertarido has never once done anything that is actually dishonourable, well except maybe breaking off his engagement to Eduige which he immediately calls back on. He returns Milan to Bertarido, taking what was the half of Lombardy belonging to the deceased brother and solidifying the deal by marrying Eduige, rendering her Queen of Padua. This act of magnaminity prompts a happy little aria from Rodalinda **.
59: Dopo la notte oscura The opera ends with a quintet of rejoicing for all of the soloists except Garibaldo **.
For a supposedly feminist opera, the males in the cast are far more sexually expressive than usual. They all seem to be either in love with each other or use their sexuality to get what they want out of the two women, and sometimes even each other. All six of the soloists are projected as incredibly sexy, which actually makes the performance more interesting. It may be just that this specific production makes an incredible case for the opera, but I would say that this is better than Giulio Cesare! The emotions are far more immediate and domestic, the scope is more claustrophobic with no chorus and almost nothing but arias excluding a duet and a quintet. Normally I would be bored out of my mind by the endless parade of aria-recitative combo but here it is actually rather impressive. Not one number is boring, and many have immense pathos. The plot is complicated, but interestingly so. I really must admit, if more Handel operas are like this one, I may actually grow to like opera seria! An alpha of course.
LINK: Performance from Glyndebourne, 1998 (with Russian subtitles).