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Productions of Handel's operas don't get much better than this one'

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Cambridge Handel Opera Group are staging Rodelinda this week
Cambridge Handel Opera Group are staging Rodelinda this week

The newly re-formed Cambridge Handel Opera Group's Rodelinda is being staged four times this week in the Great Hall of The Leys School, with Wednesday evening's being the second performance.

Incredibly, Handel wrote more than 40 operas in addition to the oratorios by which he is better known generally, and all this in addition to the overwhelming volume of other music he composed; songs, cantatas, church music, orchestral and instrumental works galore.

Cambridge Handel Opera Company’s ambitious and admirable programme is to perform Handel’s operas in even number years, and to perform those of his contemporaries in the intervening ones. Rodelinda (1725) is its inaugural presentation.

The plot will be recognisable enough to anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s plays. An absent ruler observing events unnoticed, the woman as victim of a lustful potentate, insoluble dilemmas, the virtuous plot promoter, the conscience-stricken usurper unable to find rest for his uneasy head.

But integral to the narrative is that sense of imagination which Handel lends to the course of action and which makes his music unique, consistently providing effects that are often achieved by deceptively simple means.

The opera group’s declared intention, with its historically informed authentic productions, is to aim for a “meaningful integrity between what happens in the music and what happens on the stage”.

Rodelinda makes use of no particular devices or stage machinery. Like Hamlet it has political overtones but, like that play too, is essentially a domestic psycho-drama where all the people in it are ruled by identifiable passions.

The uniformly brilliant cast and accomplished period orchestra in this beautiful performance created a magical weld, truly a “fusion of music and stage” in the Company’s own terms. The stage sets, managing somehow to be at once sumptuous and spare, were a striking scarlet and black; costumes and lighting effects visually arresting.

Operas of this kind consist mainly of a series of solo arias allotted to each of the prominent cast members, space unfortunately forbidding a detailed rehearsal of the high points in this lengthy (more than three hours) sequence, but there were many. The contributions of Rodelinda (Alice Privett), Garibaldo (Nicholas Morris), Grimoaldo (William Wallace), Bertarido (William Towers) and Eduige (Ida Ranzlov) were all absolutely outstanding.

Artistic director, Julian Perkins, conducted the orchestra from the harpsichord, where the beauty of Handel’s score, his ear for sonority, his potent gaps and silences between pieces of music, his changes of texture, were allowed to amaze us all over again.

Unlikely though events may at times have seemed to anticipate, there is in fact a happy conclusion. The Machiavellian Garibaldo is slain. The usurping Grimoaldo renounces his pursuit of Bertarido’s wife, and Bertarido is restored to his rightful kingdom.

Instrumental in the healing process is Nature, present as an element which sympathises with and reciprocates Bertarido’s grief, and later present as a healing power whose ‘soothing breezes’ and pastoral beckonings suggest a future redemptive route for Grimoaldo to follow. Nature is not just there to calm and charm. It is a moral force which can make bad people good.

Beethoven, when once asked, said that among his predecessors he considered Handel to be the greatest composer of all. Performances of Rodelinda are comparatively rare events and productions of Handel’s operas don’t get much better than this one.

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