On 26th June 1920, the revival of interest in Handel’s hitherto neglected operas was signalled by a performance of Rodelinda in the first of the Göttingen Handel festivals. Due to Covid, the centennial anniversary performance planned for 2020 was postponed until this September, and while my planned attendance was perforce curtailed, the premiere was streamed live, and is available for replay for a few months.

Owen Willetts (Unulfo), Christopher Lowrey (Bertarido) and Anna Dennis (Rodelinda)
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

Live streaming can be a dodgy business. My view of the live broadcast was marred by every conceivable glitch, from extreme visual fuzziness, intermittent lack of synchronicity of sight and sound, frozen intervals, buffering, all possibly due to my own connectivity problems, but watching later “on demand”, it was crystal clear for the most part, and aurally perfect. The bits that weren’t clear the second time around were entirely due to the production.

The directors “relocated the work’s conflicts to the 1920s... the time of Rodelinda’s rediscovery by Oskar Hagen”, which is not entirely original – the idea of Lombardy as a 20th-century fascist state was seen at Glyndebourne in 1998. That time setting was not in great evidence here visually, insofar as the women’s clothes were far more Edwardian than anything else, with Rodelinda’s red gown with mutton chop sleeves and Eduige’s draped blue outfit with a white rose on a sash. Only Unolfo’s blue argyle sweater (oddly teamed with a shiny white belt and tie) and perhaps Garibaldo’s knickerbocker pants seemed a propos. The setting was a high panelled country house drawing room, initially decorated with a portrait of Bertarido and a double-headed eagle flag, associated with dictatorships down the centuries. This seemed to suggest that the latter king was not so benign, even if his usurpers might be worse. At the very end of the opera, after everyone has changed into white tie and tails and tossed off champagne, Flavio’s discovery of a sword suggests he too will become a book-burning fascist.

Julien Van Mellaerts (Garibaldo) and Owen Willetts (Unulfo)
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

There were various directorial conceits to draw our attention to modern parallels, but some were just plain bizarre. Rodelinda, at site of Bertarido's grave, wheels in a half-finished tapestry recalling the faithful Homeric Penelope, but why would we need such a heavy-handed reminder? Every so often the stage was flooded with blue light, which did not do much for clarity on the screen. At times these seemed to indicate a dream state of some sort, such as when Rodelinda clambered into view from the fireplace. Then there was the moment between the B section and the da capo of Grimoaldo’s “Tuo drudo è mio rivale” when everything turned blue, the walls crashed down and what appeared to be the back of a large brass elephant appeared in the left hand corner, from the top of which Grimoaldo spied on Rodelinda and Bertarido reuniting. Fortunately the singers, mostly Göttingen favourites, overrode all this not just vocally but with finely tuned dramatic interactions.

Thomas Cooley (Grimoaldo)
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

Under the baton of Laurence Cummings, in presumably his last Göttingen festival, the FestspielOrchester Göttingen worked its usual magic, although some of the usual faces seemed to be lacking, which would be understandable. Elizabeth Blumenstock was in her usual place as concertmaster, and Phoebe Carrai anchored the continuo. Kate Clark’s lambent flute was particularly beguiling in “Ombre, piante”.

Anna Dennis’ assumption of Rodelinda was always something to look forward to; not only does she have a clear pure soprano voice with immaculate technique, but she is also a riveting stage presence. She is not a scenery chewer like, for instance, Anna Caterina Antonacci in the 1998 Glyndebourne staging, but is a much more restrained performer. Her Rodelinda exuded more icy contempt than unmitigated fury in “Morrai, sì”, and similarly in “Spietati” as she scornfully faced down seriatim Grimoaldo, Unolfo and Garibaldo. “Se ‘l mio duol” from the original premiere was replaced by the possibly even more beautiful “Ahi perchè, giusto ciel” from the December 1725 revival, delivered by Dennis with great sensitivity.

Christopher Lowrey (Bertarido) and Franziska Gottwald (Eduige)
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

Bertarido was sung by Christopher Lowrey, an excellent Baroque countertenor with great dramatic commitment. His longing for his wife was palpable, with a lovely “Dove sei” and a fine bravura “Vivi, tiranno”. Franziska Gottwald as Eduige was, as ever, a strong dramatic presence, with great mezzo attack, and Owen Willetts as Unolfo – a somewhat thankless if important role – showed lovely golden countertenor tone. Thomas Cooley was convincing as Grimoaldo, one of Handel’s rare operatic tenor roles, with a firm delivery, even if his coloratura was not as well articulated as it might be. Julien Van Mellaerts was suitably mean as the sneering villain Garibaldo, with a smooth resonant voice. The performance was very well received in the house, as could be heard in the extended synchronised clapping at the end. 

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