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04 Jun 2008
Handel's Rodrigo — Ensemble San Felice, St John’s Smith Square, London
Handel’s Rodrigo, subtitled ‘Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria’ (Self-conquest is the greater victory) is one of the composer’s earliest operatic works, and rarely heard.
It was extensively revised between
the completion of the autograph score and its 1707 première in Florence, and
large sections of both versions were subsequently lost. It would appear that
the revisions for the Florence production were to the detriment of the piece,
and thanks to the discovery in 1983 of a substantial amount of lost material
from the autograph (as well as a certain amount of editorial license to
recreate missing recitatives, and the loan of a couple of numbers from
Handel’s other operas) Alan Curtis’s performing edition — given here in
London by a Florentine ensemble as part of the Lufthansa Baroque Festival —
is based on Handel’s original intentions.
The story is loosely based on that of an actual 8th-century Spanish king
and conqueror, whose political victories were complicated by his apparent
inability to be faithful to his wife. In the libretto (by Silvani, and
originally set a few years earlier by Marc’Antonio Ziani) Rodrigo has
seduced the impressionable young Florinda with the promise of a throne,
consequently fathered her a child, and then reneged on his offer. She is left
furious, disgraced and bent on revenge, while Rodrigo goes back to his
rightful queen, the saintly but childless Esilena, who understandably is
deeply distressed by the whole situation. Esilena’s constancy in the face
of marital wrongdoing is, in the end, the salvation of all concerned (along
with a convenient eleventh-hour plot development whereby Florinda gets a
better offer and gives Rodrigo up for good).
Acts 2 and 3 contain some interesting and original numbers — a lovely
lute serenade for the soprano secondo uomo, Evanco, and a fragment of a tenor
aria (for Giuliano, Florinda’s brother) with a quirky bassoon obbligato,
which is cut off by an advance in the plot just as it reaches the B section.
The same cannot be said for the first act, where nearly every aria is one of
anger, vengeance or war — each individual aria certainly gives the singer
scope to demonstrate mettlesome coloratura technique, but an entire act full
of identical numbers is rather tiresome, especially when there’s little
variety in tessitura (the lowest voice in the cast being a tenor) and when
only a couple of the voices were really worth such extended display.
The finest vocal performer by a long way was the soprano Laura Cherici who
sang Esilena; her soft-grained tone had a liquid beauty which portrayed the
wronged queen ideally, and her one fast aria was sung with exceptional flare.
In the title role, the mezzo Gloria Banditelli was disappointing — her
singing was accurate and attractive, but it was not a heroic voice. Here in
London we are so blessed with regular access to good heroic Handelian mezzos
that I fear we take them for granted.
Other than that, not a great deal of the singing was to be recommended;
Annamaria dell’Oste’s Florinda was impressive in her agility and force of
delivery, but she had a tendency to go sharp. In fact, there were intonation
problems from the majority, and the contralto Caterina Calvi (in the
virtually unnecessary role of Fernando) sounded as though she should have
been at home with laryngitis, though no announcement was made to this effect.
There was some exceptionally fine instrumental playing, however —
especially from the continuo cellist and lutenist. Federico Bardazzi was the
Though Luciano Alberti’s semi-staging — against a backdrop of
projected line-drawings of the original 1707 production — was fairly
rudimentary, a fair amount of (dare I say somewhat misplaced) effort had
obviously been made with Enrico Coveri Maison’s costume designs, which
attempted to replicate the styles and shapes shown in the projected images.
They were a typically early-18th-century take on costumes for an opera set in
the 8th century, but coloured in a lurid array of much more modern cerises,
turquoises and oranges.
Ruth Elleson © 2008