Friday, 5 July 2013

Handel’s Rodelinda – An Introduction

The following is a draft entry for The Literary Encyclopedia Online (the entry was published online in July, 2012)

No work in Handel’s remarkable and extensive opera-writing career is better placed than Rodelinda to give a sense of the excitement and success of a composer writing at the height of his powers, for the best singers in the world, at a time when London was the opera capital of the world.

Handel was in one of his several periods of particular creative genius, completing his third masterpiece in just over a year. Rodelinda, which followed  Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, was one of the best received of all Handel’s operas for the Royal Academy, running for fourteen performances and revived at the end of the year for a second season.

Charles Burney (the eighteenth-century music historian, father of the novelist Frances Burney) noted that Rodelinda “contains such a number of capital and pleasing airs, as entitles it to one of the first places among Handel’s dramatic productions” (Burney, 302), and Chrysander found it to be “one of his most complete and satisfying operas” (Dean and Knapp, 577). Modern commentators and audiences agree. It was the opera which first began the twentieth-century revival of Handel’s operas in the famous Göttingen production of June 1920, and it has enjoyed numerous productions in every decade since.

The plot is based on seventh-century Lombard history and politics, just as Handel’s Flavio was two years earlier. Both operas were based on Corneille, but Handel’s librettist, Nicola Haym, used a libretto by Antonio Salvi.

The opera opens with Rodelinda, wife of the king, Bertarido, in her apartments mourning the supposed death of her husband. She lives now only for their son, Flavio. Grimoaldo, now the king, expresses his love for her: he will make her queen again by marriage. She rejects him contemptuously. Grimoaldo tells Garibaldo, the Duke of Turin, of his frustration at the unwanted attention of Eduige, sister of Bertarido, and his rejection by Rodelinda. Grimoaldo urges him to scorn Eduige. She enters and Grimoaldo tells her that, having previously offered his hand, he now rejects her. Alone with Garibaldo she promises to make Grimoaldo grovel, and then, in front of him, offer herself to Garibaldo. Alone, Garibaldo declares his only interest is in gaining a throne. In a cypress-grove, Bertarido, who has been in secret exile, looks on at his own funeral monument, and considers the vanity of all things. The loyal Unulfo meets him, reporting Rodelinda’s utter despair. They see Rodelinda and Flavio, but Unulfo uirges Bertarido not to reveal himself. He can hardly bear it as he watches her mourn by his urn. Whilst Unulfo restrains him, they watch Garibaldo insult Rodelinda: she must have Grimoaldo or her son will be executed. She accepts marriage on these terms, but curses Garibaldo, and boasts that his death will be a condition of her marriage. Grimoaldo promises Garibaldo safety. Meanwhile, Bertarido complains to Unulfo that Rodelinda has too easily succumbed to threats, and curses her. Act II opens with Garibaldo promising Eduige a throne if she commits to marry him: she hesitates and he says he knows she is really in love with Grimoaldo. Eduige upbraids Rodelinda for the proposed marriage to Grimoaldo and swears revenge on him. Rodelinda, as her one condition for marriage, offers her son’s life to Grimoaldo – she cannot marry a tyrant and be mother to a rightful king. Grimoaldo confesses to Unulfo that her integrity makes him even more in love. Unulfo upbraids Garibaldo, but the latter is spitefully unrepentant, arguing that Grimoaldo should act the tyrant. Alone, though, Unulfo knows he will betray Grimoaldo. Bertarido, in view of a delightful prospect, bemoans his fate. Eduige enters and recognises his voice. He confesses to her his misery, but Unulfo assures him of Rodelinda’s fidelity, and Bertarido sets out to regain his wife and son. Unulfo meets with Rodelinda and tells her of her husband’s survival; she is overwhelmed. The lovers meet, but Grimoaldo enters and upbraids Rodelinda for her inconstancy to the memory of her husband, not recognising Bertarido. But Bertarido declares himself, and is promptly taken prisoner under death sentence. Rodelinda complains to Bertarido that he should so reveal himself, but the two embrace in parting. Eduige unfolds a plot to Udolfo: he is in charge of the prisoner and she has a key to a secret passage. Garibaldo urges Grimoaldo to vengeance but the king is unsettled and anxious. Bertarido, in prison, finds a sword, but unluckily wounds Unolfo who has come to rescue him. Rodelinda and Eduige arrive at the cell and seeing Unolfo’s blood assume the worst – that Bertarido is dead. Grimoaldo accuses himself of perfidy before falling asleep. Garibaldo finds him and goes to murder him, but is stopped by Bertarido who drives him off and kills him. Bertarido gives up his sword to Grimoaldo, who, in his gratitude, offers himself to Eduige and restores Bertarido to the kingdom of Milan. The opera ends in general rejoicing.

Rodelinda can reasonably be seen to mark the high point of the first period of the Royal Academy of Music. Handel’s cast included the great Italian castrato Senesino (in the role of Bertarido). The leading lady (Rodelinda) was the most celebrated soprano of the day, Francesca Cuzzoni. And Grimoaldo was played by Borosini, the best tenor of the period, who had recently starred in Handel’s Tamerlano. Even the minor role of Unolfo must have had a technically talented singer – the castrato Pacini - considering the coloratura virtuosity of passages in his arias. This was not only a remarkably gifted cast, but a very balanced one: soprano, alto castrati, contralto, tenor, and base. Handel had perhaps the best group of singers he had ever gathered together, and his writing didn’t let them down.

Superficially Rodelinda is typical “opera seria”, with conventional content and musical structures and devices. The simile arias offer typical comparisons with swallows, calming breezes, and ships in trouble at sea. There are pastoral arias, storm arias, revenge arias, and prison arias – all standard material. But Handel’s genius for adapting conventional forms to suit dramatic purposes is nowhere more obvious than here. Rodelinda is perhaps the most innovative of all his operas in this sense.

Handel’s use of typical “da capo” aria form was highly innovative. Normally each song has an orchestral introduction (the “ritornello”, so named, because it “returns”), then the first (“A”) section , followed by a “B” section in a contrasting key; then a repeat of the whole of the opening “A” section, with its ritornello (allowing the singer some improvisatory freedom). Handel is able to depend on his audience’s confident expectation of this structure to create some remarkable, unexpected and highly expressive variations.

So, in the first aria of the opera – “Hò perduto” – Rodelinda expresses her profound grief at the loss of her husband; in the “B” section she consoles herself with dedication to her son, but this just reminds her of her loss, so without the “da capo” ritornello, the aria moves straight back to the vocal line: the emotion for her husband is inseparable from her feelings for her son. Here, conventional form is disrupted by grief .

A very different emotion disturbs Eduige’s first aria; she swears she will make Grimoaldo beg her forgiveness; so angry is she, so determined, that she has no time for opening introductions; she gets in her first words before the ritornello.

But there are even more striking effects. “Dove sei” – out of context - is probably one of the best-known and loved of all Handel arias. In context it contributes to a piece of breathtaking dramatic writing. Bertarido, thought dead, returns to find his own monument. After a symphonic introduction, he reflects, in accompanied recitative, on the pomp and vanity of our memorials. He reads his own inscription in “secco” recitative (“dry”, without accompaniment), and then complains about his fate. This passage and its emotion then continues uninterrupted with “Dove sei”, as if we are still in the recitative, before a curtailed, displaced, ritornello gives way to the full aria, which now emerges with a complete emotional logic. Handel worked hard to create this effect (Dean and Knapp note four stages in the writing), and it shows his determination, for dramatic effect, to forge meaningful causal links between recitative and aria.

But Handel also motivates conventional forms. In Act II, Bertarido finds solace in nature, its playful breezes and gentle waters. After the “B” section of his aria (the sublimely beautiful “Con rauco mormorio”, with its imitative evocation of murmuring streams and fountains), his sister Eduige, who thinks him dead, enters, thinking she has recognised her brother’s voice – surely it can’t be him ... but, of course, he has the “A” section repeat to convince her! In Handel’s best writing for the stage he completely integrates form and content.

It’s hardly surprising that Rodelinda so captivated its audiences. As well as the dramatic intensity suggested by these examples, the opera has some of Handel’s most beautiful and sublime arias.

We can, perhaps, appreciate the music lover’s absorption in Handel’s masterful score as captured in a satiric poem written at the end of the opera’s first run:

Dear Peter, if thou can’st descend

From Roselind to hear a Friend,

And if those Ravished Ears of thine

Can quit the shrill celestial Whine

Of gentle Eunuchs, and sustain

Thy native English without pain,

I would, if t’aint too great a Burden

Thy ravished Ears intrude a Word in. (Deutsche, 178)

Works Cited

Burney, Charles. A General History of Music, 4 vols, Volume IV. London: T. Becket et al. 1789.

Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994.

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. OxfordClarendon Press. 1995.

Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955.

Recommended Reading

Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994. (The best general survey of Handel’s life and work.)

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995. (The most important of all reference works for this period, with an extensive account of all aspects of Rodelinda (572-603).)

Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955. (The best documentary source for the facts and opinions of the period.)
Jones, Andrew V., “The Composer as Dramatist: Handel’s Contribution to the Libretto of Rodelinda”. Music and Letters, Vol. 88, No. 1 (Feb, 2007). 49-77. (A fascinating account of Handel’s involvement, during composition, in the revisions to the libretto

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