~ HWV 19 ~

DG / Archiv 477 539-1
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2005.

Rodelinda: Simone Kermes, soprano
Bertarido: Marijana Mijanovic, mezzo-soprano
Eduige: Sonia Prina, mezzo-soprano
Unolfo: Marie-Nicole Lemieux, mezzo-soprano
Grimoaldo: Steve Davislim, tenor
Garibaldo: Vito Priante, bass

Il Complesso Barocco (on period instruments)
Director: Alan Curtis

(Recorded at the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj: Sala Olimpia, San Martino al Cimino, Italy.)




Rodelinda is a true figure of a queen, strong, faithful and sometimes ambiguous. Bertarido is a deposed king, often not very heroic, not always clear-sighted, but ultimately guided by love. Grimoaldo is a non-detestable usurper, who is a sincere lover and a good king. Eduige is a princess, ambitious but not devoid of a conscience. Unulfo is an exemplary friend who keeps the heroic virtues the primo uomo seems to have temporarily forgotten. Garibaldo is a Machiavellian counsellor. Such are the fascinating figures, served by marvellous music, on which the success of Rodelinda is built. Though not totally devoid of dramatic weaknesses, there are many good reasons for Rodelinda to be one of Handel's most famous operatic master-works. It has been regularly performed since the start of the Handel revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and has already been recorded several times.

This new recording seems to be the result of strange circumstances. On one hand, there was a rumour circulating a few years ago about a Rodelinda project on Universal with some of their biggest names (Renée Flemming, Andreas Scholl, Marc Minkowski…). This rumour didn’t manifest itself in any confirmed plans but at least illustrated the will of the corporation to allow one of its major labels to record this opera. On the other hand, the fine Handelian conductor Alan Curtis, who wants now to record several Handel operas a year, often organizes his own projects and recordings and has no exclusive contract with any label: Deidamia was released in 2003 on Virgin and Lotario in 2004 on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. Although Curtis often performs and records rare and neglected operas – maybe too interesting for some major companies to take enough interest – he has the legitimate desire to perform and record famous ones too.

Why do I evoke those circumstances? Because this recording is a relative but persistent disappointment and it is not that easy to understand why. To listen to the beginning of the opera is more than enjoyable. The orchestra sounds much less dry and thin than in other recordings with Il Complesso Barocco. The overture is just how it has to be, and then Simone Kermes is impressive in her two arias during the first scene (‘Ho perduto il caro sposo’ and ‘L’empio rigor del fato’). She is a very substantial and consistent Rodelinda, from both vocal and dramatic points of view. Grimoaldo’s first aria is finely sung by Steve Davislim, and Sonia Prina’s Eduige is almost ideal. In Garibaldo’s first aria, Vito Priante’s performance is scarcely inferior: Curtis' tempi and the accompaniment seem to be unquestionable.

But then we fall over another world with the arrival of Bertarido. There is no doubt that Marijana Mijanovic’s performance could seduce many people, all the more because she is a true personality and a good actress. But for others it is really difficult to listen to her ‘Dove sei, amato bene’, which tends to be out of tune, with an amazing lack of sustain, uncontrolled colours, engorged and tense singing, even though the sound recording seems to do its best to help her. This definitely reminds me of her amazing massacre of ‘Alma del gran Pompeo’ in her recording of Giulio Cesare under Minkowski. Further listening to her performance here confirms the problems with her singing, most notably the almost total impossibility to sustain a long note. Though commitment and bombast cannot hide singing problems, the other arias are often much better, particularly the fast ones in which the singer seems at least to be carried out by the energy of the music. Anyway, such an erratic performance tends to ruin the whole production. Unfortunately, it is not the only problem. Davislim’s technique does not seem appropriate for Grimoaldo's arias. The legato is often roughly handled, the fast runs are nasal, and his throat sometimes sounds pinched on his highest notes. Vito Priante’s singing is not that stable either: he lacks low notes, tries to swell his voice and finally sounds too much like a basso buffo.

The best things are definitely to be found in excellent performances by Sonia Prina (constantly excellent), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (although she tends to force her singing) and Simone Kermes, whose Rodelinda is definitely the best I've heard on CD for ages. Her fantastic performance would have been even greater had it not been for her systematic and demonstrative tendency to look for the high notes in cadenzas and da capos, a habit which not always fit the dramatic and musical context.

The result is definitely very difficult to value. There are many really nice, enjoyable and beautiful moments, but the whole thing does not really work. It is not really helped by the sound recording which sometimes tries to ‘help’ the singers by creating a sort of spatialization which can result in unbalanced sound. After several listenings I became accustomed to the performer’s skills and weaknesses, but I found it difficult to avoid feeling a persistent monotony. Perhaps this recording's biggest weakness is that it can sound beautiful but empty and artificial. Here is a really frustrating recording, whose singers are potentially superior to many of their colleagues on recordings by Schneider (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), Kraemer (Virgin) and McGegan (Göttingen Handel Society). However, both Schneider and Kraemer bear a coherence and emotion which are lacking here. The balance between the voices and the orchestra is much more satisfying with both those recordings, the less demonstrative and naturalistic da capos just sound right and don’t disrupt the dramatic pace. In conclusion, the most satisfying recording of Rodelinda is probably Nicholas McGegan's live performance at the Göttingen festival in 2000 - unfortunately only available to members of the Göttingen Händel Gesellschaft - which is impregnated with the sincerity which seems to be cruelly lacking in Curtis' recording.

It is worth noting that ‘Vivi tiranno’, which didn’t belong to the first version of Rodelinda, is performed here – as in almost all modern performances of Rodelinda. But this recording offers an alternative version of Unulfo’s aria ‘Sono I colpi della sorte’ and the first recording of the duet ‘D’ogni crudel martir’ (Act III, scena ultima). Apparently this is enough for Archiv Produktion to put a sticker on the front cover claiming that this recording is the first complete one...

© Philippe Gelinaud - June 2005

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