Rodelinda is above all a singer's opera! The score is beautiful, and – as you would expect with Baroque opera – decorated with all kinds of lovely embellishments. This is music that delights the ear!
Handel was a canny man of the theatre, and he is always absolutely in tune with the dramatic moment, his music mirroring the emotions and the conflicts – inward and outward – of each character. Passion and politics are inextricably linked in Rodelinda, and the line between ambition and love is often unclear, even to the characters themselves.
Grimoaldo has seized the throne of Lombardy. His betrothed, Eduige, is in mourning for her brothers, the rightful kings, and has postponed the wedding. Encouraged by the treacherous Garibaldo, Grimoaldo jilts Eduige in order to pursue Bertarido's wife Rodelinda.
Io già t'amai is an example of the da capo aria, which comprises three sections. The first section is a setting of the words Io già t'amai, ritrosa: (I loved you once, but you were aloof; you refused to be my wife, you always said no).
The second section contrasts in key, mood, and tempo: Or ch'io son Re, non voglio. (Now that I'm King, I wouldn't want a consort who once spurned me.)
The third or da capo section repeats the first section, but with improvised embellishments and extravagant musical curlicues. This ornamentation adds an element of unpredictability to the music, upping the artistic excitement and magnifying the dramatic impact.
Steve Davislim as Grimoaldo. Alan Curtis conductor, Il Complesso Barocco
The heroic roles in Baroque opera were customarily taken by castrati. Today the castrati roles are usually performed by countertenors (occasionally by mezzo sopranos and contraltos). Rodelinda features not one, but two countertenor roles: Bertarido, the beloved husband of Rodelinda, and Unulfo, his faithful friend. Both roles provide outstanding musical moments.
Bertarido is in hiding and believed dead. He reads the inscription on his tomb and expresses his longing for his wife Rodelinda. His beautiful da capo aria Dove sei is one of the most famous moments in the opera.
Dove sei, amato bene?
Where are you, my beloved? Come console my heart.
I am tormented with anguish
and the pain of my sorrow can be soothed only with you
Countertenor Andreas Scholl as Bertarido. "Arias for Senesino." Academia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
Bertarido is believed to be dead, and a monument has been erected in his honour. Rodelinda has brought her son Flavio to the memorial, and gives voice to her grief for her husband. She does not know that he has returned in disguise and is hidden nearby with Unulfo, watching and listening. The score includes beautiful interplay between the soprano voice and the flute.
Shade trees, sorrowful tombs, you would bring delight to my heart
if I could find in you as well as the likeness the ashes of my beloved.
This is an audio recording of the aria by the late Joan Sutherland
Rodelinda has just learned that Bertarido is alive, and she is overwhelmed both with joy and with fear for his safety.
My dear sweet treasure, come back and bring comfort and joy to my heart!
Joan Sutherland in a 1959 concert recording.
No sooner have Rodelinda and Bertarido been reunited than Grimoaldo arrives. He does not recognize Bertarido and is furious at Rodelinda's apparent hypocrisy: not only has she refused his offer of marriage, but she has taken a lover. Bertarido explains that he is her husband, but Rodelinda, to protect him, insists that her husband is dead. Grimoaldo tells Rodelinda that the man is either her lover, and therefore his rival, or else her husband, and therefore his enemy. In either case, he shall die. He tells the couple to make their final farewells. Husband and wife sing the ravishing duet, Io t'abbraccio, e più che morte.
I embrace you, and this farewell that takes us from one another
is crueler and more bitter to my heart than death.
Mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozena as Rodelinda, countertenor David Daniels as Bertarido. Kammerorchester Basel Ensemble, conducted by Paul Goodwin. Live recital, Bruxelles 2005.
The climax of the opera is Bertarido's great aria Vivi, tiranno. Bertarido has saved Grimoaldo's life by killing the would-be assassin Garibaldo. He now returns and tosses the bloody sword at his enemy's feet, challenging the tyrant to kill him too.
Vivi tiranno! Io t'ho scampato Svenami, ingrato, sfoga il furor.
Volli salvarti sol per mostrarti ch'ho di mia sorte più grande cor.
Live, Tyrant! I have saved you. Now kill me, ingrate, unleash your rage!
I wished to save you only to show you that my heart is greater than my fate.
Today the male roles in Baroque opera that were originally performed by castrati are performed by women (mezzo sopranos or contraltos) – or by countertenors. A countertenor is a male singer, whose vocal range is equivalent to that of a contralto, mezzo-soprano, or (less frequently) a soprano.
Here are two versions of Vivi, tiranno, one sung by countertenor David Daniels, the other by mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne.
Countertenor David Daniels as Bertarido. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Roger Norrington, conductor
Mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne as Bertarido. James Levine, conductor, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.