A Stunning New “Rodelinda”

Rodelinda front cover

Handel: Rodelinda / Sonia Ganassi, mezzo-soprano (Rodelinda); Paolo Fanale, tenor (Grimoaldo); Marina De Liso, contralto (Eduige); Franco Fagioli, countertenor (Bertarido); Gezim Myshketa, bass-baritone (Garibaldo); Antonio Giovannini, countertenor (Unulfo); Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Diego Fasolis, conductor / Dynamic CDS 7724/1-2 (2 CDs, live: July 13 & 29 2013, Martina Franca)

An online friend of mine once told me that he is always searching for a Handel opera as dramatic as Giulio Cesare. I mentioned Rodelinda to him, particularly after hearing the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of January 1, 2005 with Renée Fleming (Rodelinda), Kobie van Rensburg (Grimoaldo), Stephanie Blythe (Eduige), David Daniels (Bertarido), John Relyea (Garibaldo) and Bejun Mehta (Unulfo), conducted by Harry Bicket (a performance I still love for its sheer beauty and accuracy of singing), but for whatever reason he didn’t find it particularly interesting.

This performance is very interesting. So interesting, in fact, that in my view it shoots straight to the top of Rodelinda recordings.

Oh, yes, there are partisans of the Alan Curtis recording with Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Rodelinda, and it’s pretty good, but to me it just misses the mark. Then there is the officially issued Met performance with Fleming and Blythe, from December 3, 2011 with several cast changes (Andreas Scholl as Bertarido, Shen Yang as Garibaldo and Joseph Kaiser as Grimoaldo), also good, on Decca DVD 974 3469, but that is not as dramatically taut as the 2005 broadcast. And there are several people who absolutely adore the Glyndebourne DVD with Italian mezzo Anna Caterina Antonacci as Rodelinda, conducted by William Christie, but if you can tolerate Antonacci’s wiry, fluttery, ugly voice, you have a stronger stomach than I do.

Which brings us to this production given in the relatively small Italian town of Martina Franca. Judging from the photos on the front booklet cover and CD box inset the costumes look outré and ridiculous, the stage sets look ugly and bare, but thankfully this is an audio CD and you don’t have to put up with the visuals. And what you hear on the recording is a performance that doesn’t just come close to the dramatic ideal, but rather explodes dramatically in a way that you almost never hear in this modern era of Historically-Informed Historicals with their straight tone strings and—worse yet—the insistence on what soprano Carole Bogard called “pinny neat singing” with no drama or feeling.

The one thing you must tolerate is the fact that this is a live performance (actually the combination of two live performances), thus the singers warm up before your very ears. This is particularly true of our Rodelinda, Italian mezzo Sonia Ganassi, who in my experience is much like Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead…when she is good, she is very, very good, etc. She starts out in poor voice, sounding a shade flat in her first florid aria, “L’empio rigor del fato,” but before the aria is over you can hear her voice click in and improve. And she imparts a tremendous amount of feeling to the role of the vanquished queen separated from her husband and under the control of the vicious Grimoaldo. In a way, this opera is sort of a cross between the plots of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and Fidelio, and as such it simply cries out for the kind of dramatic reading it receives here.

Nor is Ganassi the whole show. Grimoaldo, normally sung by light, pleasant Baroque tenors, always seemed to me an emasculated character, but here he is sung by Paolo Fanale who sounds almost like he came in a time machine from the era of early Verdi. Indeed, so dark and strong is Fanale’s timbre that at first I thought he wouldn’t be able to sing Grimoaldo’s coloratura, yet he negotiates it with ease while still sounding like a nascent Ismaele or Macduff. Contralto Marina de Liso, as Rodelinda’s sister-in-law Eduige, lacks the smooth delivery of Stephanie Blythe—she has a somewhat uneven vibrato that tends to spread under pressure—but her chesty, Marilyn Horne-like plunges into the low register, and equally Horne-like focus on a damn-the-torpedos dramatic delivery, darn near knock you off your feet.

Yet even these singers, good as they are, are not the end of the wonders of this recording. My readers know that I am usually not a fan of countertenors not named Philippe Jaroussky, but much to my surprise Franco Fagioli’s Bertarido is presented with such a firm tone (even when he dips into the low range, where 99% of countertenors sound thin and hollow), and such a dark sound, that I was absolutely bowled over. His performance of the showpiece aria “Vivi, tiranno! is the best I’ve ever heard. And then there is the young Albanian baritone Gëzim Myshketa (b. 1982), who sounds to my ears like a junior Leonard Warren with good coloratura technique. In the midst of such riches, perhaps it is nitpicking to say that the other countertenor, Antonio Giovannini, sounds merely good.

One of the virtues of this recording is that it is complete yet fits onto two CDs, but there are two little problems. The first of these is that several arias are truncated—Eduige’s “De’ miei scherni,” Grimoaldo’s “Prigioniera hò l’alma” and “Trà sospetti, affetti,” and Rodelinda’s final aria, “Mio Caro bene”—yet the overall performance is so good that one forgives this slightly-more-than-venial sin. The other complaint I had was that, for some reason, they chose to place the Act 2 opening recitative and the aria “De’ miei scherni” near the end of the act, just before Grimoaldo’s aria and the great Rodelinda-Bertarido duet, “Io t’abbraccio.” Perhaps this had something to do with the stage director’s “vision” (saints preserve us, boss!) but, frankly, I don’t like it. If you buy this album as downloads, however, it’s pretty easily remedied: just put that track at the beginning of Act 2 and push Garibaldo’s recitative and the aria “Tirannia gli diede il regno” to the beginning of the second CD. Problem solved.

And now we have only the conducting of Diego Fasolis to discuss, and it is fantastic. Yes, yes, the strings play most of the time with straight tone, but not consistently so: they also use a light vibrato at times. More importantly, the orchestra plays with heart and drive. They don’t sound as if they are whining and mewling. Miraculous! In addition to all this, the recorded sound is just perfect for a live performance, both the orchestra and the voices forward and clear with no quirky reverb or acoustic anomalies. All in all, a great performance, one that will grab your attention and then hold it for two and a half hours. The one drawback to this recording is that you’ll have to download the libretto from Dynamic’s website and print it out yourself, but this is a small inconvenience, particularly since they’ve managed to put the whole thing onto eight pages (in both Italian and English). If you like Giulio Cesare, you’ll love this particular recording of Rodelinda. It’s a strange mixture of Baroque and Verismo sensibilities, but it works, and that’s all that counts.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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