Handel’s Rodrigo by Operamission

Myth focuses, as myths do, not on dull defects of administration but on
the morals of Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king. A youthful usurper in any
case, he was also said to have seduced a certain Florinda, whose father,
Julian, governor of Ceuta across in Africa, invited the Moors, newly converted
to Islam, to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and avenge the girl’s honor. They
did, in a way.

Was there really a Florinda? A Julian? We don’t know, but the story
evolved into several operas, most recently Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo ,
which introduced a young tenor named Domingo to the New York City Opera forty
years back. Handel set the story in 1707, merely the second of his forty
surviving operas and the first written on his apprentice visit to Italy. In his
version, treacherous Rodrigo, inspired by his noble, long-suffering wife,
Esilena, abdicates in favor of Florinda’s child, and there is no Arab
invasion to clutter the happy ending called for by opera seria
convention. Autres temps, autres Moors?

Operamission, which last year presented the New York premiere of Handel’s
first surviving opera, the German-language Almira, in a sparkling,
astonishing run of performances (the work will be given by the Boston Early
Music Festival in June), gave the American premiere of Rodrigo in May.
The libretto, a rather tatterdemalion affair with several bits missing (Handel
used to cut whole numbers from old operas when he required a last-minute
substitution in some newer work), is a twisty skeleton on which the singers
must build dramatic excitement. Emotions of love, revenge, conceit and abrupt
magnanimity provide the vocal opportunities, and the subtle orchestral
accompaniments are varied and surprising.

The through line is Rodrigo: He has sinned and must pay, but subjects should
not raise their hands against their king no matter the provocation. (They do
anyway for most of Act II.) While fighting them, Rodrigo must achieve his own
self-conquest. It’s a pity his first aria is missing: We have the text, in
which he advises Florinda to revel in the memory of the pleasures they have
shared. Rodrigo’s pride prepares us for his comeuppance, and it would have
been interesting to hear Handel depict such unlikely sentiments. Instead, we
open (after a very long dance-y overture) with Florinda in a fury, which will
remain unappeased till the final scene, when her lover is deposed, her son
enthroned and a new lover swears devotion. Florinda’s rage drives the plot
every time anyone is willing to compromise, but she’s not the prima donna, a
position held by Rodrigo’s sublime wife.

The lobby of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street is divided
into two parts by a curtain, and conversation by the elevators often intrudes
on the musical half, while the performance space tests the inventiveness of the
company and the tolerance of the audience. This may not be unlike conditions in
the small, noisy, candlelit private opera houses of Handel’s time.
Operamission also provided no sets or costumes to speak of. The tableaux of
Rodrigo’s libretto are more easily placed than were the confusions
of Almira last year, and the audience was seated around the room with
the fourteen musicians of the Handel Band, led by violinist Joan Plana in the
center. The band included baroque oboes, bassoon, cello and bass—there were
no brasses in the score, but oboes ingeniously stand in for them in typically
Handelian martial numbers. This closeness made the whole score more
interesting, intelligible accompaniment: You could distinguish the separate
parts chosen to signal different emotions in a way that a modern covered
theater pit tends to obscure.

Rodrigo calls for six singers and fully half of them were
castrati at the premiere in Florence. Today these roles go to
countertenors, and at the Operamission performances, one marveled at the
variety of them now singing professionally. Nicholas Tamagna, the Rodrigo,
burst onto the scene with a brilliant, trumpet-flavored sound that immediately
signaled: I’m the leading man. Tamagna’s brashness set us up to be
surprised by the superb melancholy of his singing of later scenes as the
king’s fortunes declined and fell. This is a wonderful voice that has
delighted me on many occasions, its soft colors as appealing as the brassy
ones, and he is a fine actor, but on this occasion his singing was not
infrequently a bit below pitch. Christopher Newcomer, as his opponent Evanco
(who ends up with Florinda), has a thinner, more soprano sound that ran out of
steam in the last act where Handel cruelly assigns him four arias to express a
range of gloat and amorous satisfaction. Daniel Bubeck sang the two-aria role
of Fernando, a general, with an alto of such sensuous quality that one
regretted he was a fighter, not a lover. He was also the only singer of the
night who gave us something like a genuine trill. Everyone in the cast could
manage Handelian passagework brilliantly, a skill in demand for any church
singing, but baroque opera calls for other ornaments as well.

Madeline Bender brought a dark, chesty soprano to the fumious Florinda. She
had the full flood of sound for wrath but the baroque repertory seems an
uncomfortable fit for her vocal character and her ornamentation was uneven.
I’d peg her for the romantic repertory, where the emotions are just as
intense and she can let herself go. DÌsella L·rusdÛttir, the bright-voiced
Woglinde in the Met’s recent Ring, sang Esilena, Rodrigo’s
long-suffering queen, the largest role in the opera, which may explain why she
sang from the score all night, as other singers did occasionally. (Was
rehearsal time too brief?) Her soprano made a nice contrast with Bender’s,
more metallic and focused, and she does wonderful slow-swelling tones to
express her sighs of sympathy and renunciation. But pathetic emotions did not
allow much scope to the brightness of her upper register, and when she did
ascend to the stratosphere, pitch became wayward. Too, her Italian could use

John Carlo Pierce, the Giuliano (Florinda’s brother not her father in this
version), had the ungrateful tenor role, the lowest in the opera. Handel tenors
tend to sound grainy, less heroic or appealing than the tenor protagonists the
nineteenth century would invent as their romantic leads, but Pierce has a most
agreeable sound, phrased beautifully and ornamented with force and charm.

Jennifer Peterson, who played harpsichord continuo and prompted the singers,
devised the edition used on this occasion, a decent realization of imperfect
manuscript survivals, and Jeff Caldwell directed the clear but rather sketchy
acting. Peterson has spoken of hoping to go right through the Handel operatic
canon, a venture that has frustrated previous companies. Her first task, it
would seem to me, is to find a more dedicated venue, perhaps a larger
one—word of mouth sold out the last of the three performances of

John Yohalem

Click here for production photos.

Cast and production information:

Esilena: DÌsella L·rusdÛttir; Florinda: Madeline Bender; Rodrigo: Nicholas
Tamagna; Giuliano: John Carlo Pierce; Evanco: Christopher Newcomer; Fernando:
Daniel Bubeck. Operamission Handel Band conducted by Joan Plana. At the
Gershwin Hotel. New York City. Performance of May 23.

image_description=Rodrigo [Illustration by Tomi Um]
product_title=Handel’s Rodrigo by Operamission
product_by=A review by John Yohalem
product_id=Above: Rodrigo [Illustration by Tomi Um]