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Sonia Ganassi as Rodelinda [Photo by Laera]
10 Aug 2010

Middle Ages Next to Come

According to Paulus Diaconus’ Historia Langobardorum, both Lombard sovereigns warring for supremacy in late 7th-century Italy — the legitimate king Perctarit and Grimuald the usurper — behaved rather fairly to each other and their families.

George Frideric Handel: Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi

Rodelinda: Sonia Ganassi; Bertarido: Franco Fagioli; Grimoaldo: Paolo Fanale; Garibaldo: Gezim Myshketa; Eduige: Marina De Liso; Unulfo: Antonio Giovannini. Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia. Rosetta Cucchi, director. Diego Fasolis, conductor. Palazzo Ducale, Martina Franca, Italy. Performance of 2 August 2010.

Above: Sonia Ganassi as Rodelinda [Photo by Laera]


Above all, there is no evidence that they would compete for queen Rodelinda, who instead was exiled to Benevento with her little son Cunincpert and lived peacefully there until Perctarit, after finally recovering the throne, summoned her back to the kingdom’s capital Pavia.

Turning into melodrama characters those practical barbarians, more interested in power than in romance or bloody vengeance, was the endeavor of such Baroque playwrights as the French Pierre Corneille and the Florentine Antonio Salvi. The latter’s 1710 libretto for Giacomo Antonio Perti (Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi), drastically pruned by Nicola Haym for the London stage, was set to music by Handel in 1725. It immediately proved a resounding success, also thanks to a cast including soprano Francesca Cuzzoni in the title role, the legendary Senesino as Bertarido, and some of the best singers available in the side-roles: tenor Francesco Borosini, bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi, and alto castrato Andrea Pacini.

7123.pngFranco Fagioli as Bertarido [Photo by Laera]

The present staging in Martina Franca, a festival traditionally claiming to “authentic” performing practice, plunged the romanticized 18th-century music drama back into the darkest Middle Ages, or into a “Middle Ages next-to-come”, as phrased by director Rosetta Cucchi. At least visually, through the combination of muddy and disheveled landscapes with costumes (by Claudia Pernigotti) featuring leather, rags, metal decorations, and heavy-duty boots. Entertaining enough, but how much “authentic” is questionable, if only one checks Senesino’s portrait as Bertarido in the flamboyant livery of a Hungarian haiduk, as painted by John Vanderbank in 1725. At the most, this is Regietheater that dare not speak its name, a compromise likely to dissatisfy modernists and authenticists alike.

The show’s musical side was far more convincing, with the Swiss conductor Diego Fasolis succeeding to elicit from the festival orchestra — equipped with modern instruments plus harpsichord, theorbo and Baroque flute — a sound that was both luscious and historically informed. Within an evenly balanced company, the Argentinean alto Franco Fagioli (Bertarido) towered for projection, agility, seamless transition between registers, unfailing musicianship. His manly color and stage charisma may set a new standard among countertenors. As Rodelinda, mezzo Sonia Ganassi tended to underact throughout and suffered some strain in the upper register. For her convenience, a couple of high pitches were transposed an octave lower, and her whole climactic aria “Ombre, piante” was set in G minor instead of the original B minor. Nevertheless, she sang with an elegant restraint hitherto unnoticed in her main repertoire, stretching from Rossini and Donizetti to Massenet.

Her sister-in-fiction Eduige (the established Baroque specialist Marina De Liso) outplayed her as to style awareness, consistently unfolding hot temperament and fanciful coloratura. On the contrary, both the villain Grimoaldo (Paolo Fanale) and the arch-villain Garibaldo (Gezim Myshketa) were absolute beginners in the field of early opera, yet delivered their fast runs and stalking utterances pretty nicely. A further pleasant surprise was the male alto Antonio Giovannini, who lent the loyal Unulfo mellow color, tasteful da capos and lots of acting stamina, particularly in the alternative E-minor version of “Sono i colpi della sorte” after the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe (HHA).

To many affectionate Handelians, the opportunity to hear this and some more passages restored to the composer’s final intentions was a novelty. Yet the claim of a “world premiere in Andrew V. Jones’ critical edition” is mere pressroom hype. The actual premiere with HHA material before official publication was in Glyndebourne 1998, followed by the Göttingen Händel-Festspiele in 2000 and sundry houses worldwide. Anyway, the new artistic manager in Martina Franca, Mr. Alberto Triola, can rightfully boast for bringing to attention a dramatic masterpiece which, despite its Italian subject, was hitherto neglected by the major opera theaters in Italy.

Carlo Vitali

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