Dutch National Opera remains committed to staging Baroque opera with specialist orchestras and they’ve got an absolute winner in this Rodelinda. Claus Guth’s handsomely crafted production is a joint effort between five houses and has already been seen in Spain, France and Germany with varying casts. In Amsterdam, soprano Lucy Crowe gave a brilliant performance in the title role and the accomplished Handelians surrounding her included countertenor Bejun Mehta, who reaffirmed his starry reputation. The fabulous musicians of Concerto Köln, honeyed strings at their core, were conducted by Riccardo Minasi with tautness and poise. Handel’s ravishing music deserves the best of everything, and that is exactly what it got.

Katarina Bradić (Eduige) and Lucy Crowe (Rodelinda) © Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020
Katarina Bradić (Eduige) and Lucy Crowe (Rodelinda)
© Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020

The Lombard queen Rodelinda, wife of a deposed king who is believed dead, is a personage of high pedigree. Her reincarnation in Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto harks back to a historical character from French Classical drama. Not your run-of-the-mill heroine, Rodelinda is sharp-witted and has nerves of steel. When her husband’s usurper claims her hand in marriage, she demands that he kill her son in her presence, correctly assessing that he is incapable of going that far. Crowe invested her with the dignity corresponding to her status, but also moulded her into a woman of aching flesh and boiling blood. She presented a magnificent sight as she stated her terms at a royal banquet, singing fearlessly while sloshing champagne and dismembering lobsters, only to collapse in tears afterwards, alone in her bedroom. Her singing, firmly centred, agile and sparking with temperament, was a triumph.

<i>Rodelinda</i> © Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020
Rodelinda
© Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020

This opera is one of Handel’s great tuneful cornucopias. It includes the time-stopping farewell duet for Rodelinda and her husband Bertarido, “Io t’abraccio”, and the bravura showpiece “Vivi, tiranno”. Both of these were spectacular. In the first, Crowe and Mehta sang longingly from opposite sides of a stairwell, the orchestra pared down to a breathless hush. In the second, Mehta was at the height of his expressive powers, boldly ornamenting the da capo repeat. What a gorgeous legato he has, and what a fine singing actor he is! Like the rest of the characters, his sympathetic portrayal of the beleaguered but resilient king was seamlessly integrated into Guth’s convincing directorial concept. Guth narrates the turbulent political events through the eyes of Rodelinda’s deeply traumatised son Flavio. Fabián Augusto Gómez, an actor of short stature, plays him as a curious, precocious child who tries to make sense of the violence and treachery around him by sketching compulsively. His drawings are video-projected onto the set, an icy white Georgean manor house, subtly lit by Joachim Klein.

<i>Rodelinda</i> © Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020
Rodelinda
© Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020

This two-storey revolving construction enables multiple scenes to play out simultaneously in different rooms and characters to move fluidly throughout and in and out of the house. Apart from the singers, dancer doubles in grotesque masks haunt the rooms. They are Flavio’s hallucinations, a symptom of his extreme anxiety. This proliferation of actors ensures that there is always something going on during the long arias, when, even with such talented performers, attention can drift. The characters are coloured in with great psychological detail and the perfectly inflected and perceptively accompanied recitatives help keep track of the numerous plot points and shifting motives. Sometimes Guth adds a touch of humour. As Katarina Bradić, playing Rodelinda’s rival Eduige, fumed stylishly in her grape-coloured mezzo, the two women venomously clicked their fans at each other as if they were flick knives, before putting on poker faces and swanning coolly into the banquet hall.

Bernard Richter (Grimoaldo), Katarina Bradić, Lucy Crowe and Luca Tittoto (Garibaldo) © Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020
Bernard Richter (Grimoaldo), Katarina Bradić, Lucy Crowe and Luca Tittoto (Garibaldo)
© Monika Rittershaus | DNO 2020

In Act 3 the action slows down somewhat, as a string of arias determine which part each character will play in the happy resolution, a pitfall inherent to the structure of the opera. Still, one of the most effective moments was one of these arias, in which the usurper Grimoaldo longs for sleep and peace of mind. Guth had tenor Bernard Richter, drunk and dishevelled, collapse on the front lawn, in stark contrast to the suaveness and self-importance with which he had started out. Richter was a fantastic Grimoaldo with a beautiful timbre, vividly capturing this superficial, less-than-hundred-percent dastardly figure. Equally lucid and entertaining were countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as the loyal Unulfo and bass Luca Tittoto as the real, unrepentant villain Garibaldo. Spreading caring optimism, Zazzo effortlessly combined vocal suppleness with comic timing. Tittoto looked like an evil magician, with eye-patch, cane and hired heavies. His excellent singing and cape-swishing sadism, which thankfully never developed into full-blown scenery-chewing, made the cast, and the performance, complete.

*****