Rodelinda is one of the greatest operas by one of the greatest opera composers. Between the ages of 20 and 55 Handel wrote more than 40 operas; Rodelinda is one of the finest.
We have irritatingly few documents from Handel to explain his aims, but he is generally thought to have come to England as a 25-year-old with a view to being an opera composer. In London there was a fashionable taste for Italian opera, and the money to pay for it, but no one who knew how to write it.
At first Handel's opera productions, like others of the time in London, were ad hoc affairs. But in 1719 an enterprise was launched to supply what London lacked compared with other major European centers. Paris, Dresden, Naples, Madrid, Vienna, and Venice all had permanent court or civic opera, mostly performing in the lingua franca of opera, Italian. The new Royal Academy of London was named in imitation of, and in competition with, the Académie Royale de la Musique, later renamed the Paris Opera. The British were very conscious of how Louis XIV had used art to elevate the self-respect and status of France, Britain's rival and enemy, and the Academy was a conscious effort to raise Britain's international status by mounting the best art in the world.
Its list of subscribers was headed by King George I and included nobility, members of the government, and high-ranking army officers‹the establishment, people with their fingers on the pulse of affairs. Their funding provided top composers and top artists: in the 1720s the lead singers were recruited from the best in Europe and were paid well over ten times the fee of lead theater actors. Besides being one of the three house composers, Handel was the principal conductor. Among the few letters we have from him is one written when the Academy was being planned, saying that this was his greatest career opportunity to date, one that would affect his whole life. He was right. The Academy's programming was hugely ambitious. England was never before, nor has it been since, so conducive to the production of great opera. Handel's annus mirabilis as an opera composer was, perhaps, 1724-25, for it was then that he wrote three masterpieces within 12 months: Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda.
These Academy operas satisfied the common 18th-century view that, to be great, art must be more than entertainment: it should also enlighten. The Academy operas were serious. Often they used stories from major passages of world history. So they had the authority of true events, and they were about people who had mattered, who had an influence on world affairs‹providing gratifying points of comparison and contrast for Handel's audience, who were also people of position and influence. Often the plots derived from great literature, for example‹as in the case of Rodelinda‹French classical tragedy.
Rodelinda, Queen of Lombardy, is a slice of real history. Paul the Deacon, the eighth-century court chronicler of the history of Lombardy‹a kingdom that then covered most of Italy‹relates how Grimuald (Grimoaldo) usurped the throne of Perctarit (Bertarido) and how Perctarit regained his loyal wife Rodelinda, his heir, and his throne. All the characters in Handel's opera are already present in the chronicle, which was used for a tragedy by the great 17th-century French dramatist, Pierre Corneille. His Pertharite, roi des Lombards was such a flop that he gave up writing for the stage for seven years. But at the start of the 18th century his play was successfully adapted by Antonio Salvi for an opera libretto, which was the source of the Rodelinda libretto by Nicola Haym.
Haym was a great all-rounder. He combined playing the cello in the Academy orchestra with being the Academy's secretary and earning a place in history as one of Handel's best opera librettists. It was customary in the 18th century to reuse libretti rather than writing new ones, and Haym had a great collection of more than 300 from which he learned and drew. He knew what Handel needed and what their public wanted, and his adaptation of Salvi's libretto is worth a study in itself for its awareness of what makes good drama and characterization.
London audiences were notoriously intolerant of long stretches of recitative, the passages of sung conversation between the arias that carry the action and much of the characters' motivation. Haym cut more than half of Salvi's recitative. In Salvi's libretto the recitative lays out the relevant facts about previous events and motives in due order. But in Handel's opera you are not told most of them, they emerge during the course of the action, and go on emerging well into the opera. For example, in Eduige's first aria she gives vent to her fury at being jilted by Grimoaldo. It's not till a whole act later that we learn that she helped Grimoaldo gain the throne that he now occupies. We realize that she was resenting much more than a snub to her vanity in that opening aria. This is like meeting people in real life: they seldom open up completely at first meeting, you learn about them gradually, and you understand their behavior much better once they start to tell you about their past.
Rodelinda is an opera that feels, in all respects, pared down compared with others by Handel‹especially compared with the exuberant Giulio Cesare. There are only six singing characters, and there are no colorfully differentiated cultures, no spectacular scenic effects, no dances, no transformations, no magic, no divine revelations‹all of which occur in the composer's other operas. Even that dramatic standby, mistaken identity, happens only briefly. This spareness was bold, since the London public loved scenic effects and transformations. Rodelinda shows the interaction of individuals stripped to their essentials. Its intensity can be an overwhelming experience.
Although this is a dynastic drama, it is presented as an almost claustrophobically domestic one. Handel's operas give us convincing pictures of conflicted motivation. They explore clashes between a sense of responsibility, selfish ambition (usually for power), and passion (usually love). In Rodelinda most of the major characters are trying to gain or regain status through a shift in relationships. The people who have the power‹Grimoaldo, Eduige, and Garibaldo‹abuse it. Their ambition is complicated by passion‹their own or other people's or both‹and they try to exploit other people's passions to their own ends. The person who rightfully has power, Bertarido, is uninterested in doing anything to assert it, because he is overcome by passion.
The clarity of purpose of Rodelinda and Unulfo blazes out in contrast. Haym and Handel show a wonderful freedom from convention in their ranking of the characters in a moral hierarchy. As so often in Handel, the most admirable person is female. The beleaguered but strong woman was a favourite form of heroine in the early 18th century, but Handel invests Rodelinda with matchless tenderness and warmth as well as courage and ingenuity. Interestingly, the character who comes nearest to her in integrity is the lowest in the opera's social chain, the counsellor Unulfo. His focus, resourcefulness, loyalty, and cheerfulness would have shown the Academy audience of courtiers and statesmen that one does not have to be royal to rise admirably to the demands of a situation.
The stature of Rodelinda is such that it's easy to forget that the story was a surprising choice for an Academy opera. Most of the Academy operas are about people and events well known to their classically educated audience. Lombard history, according to an Italian diplomat writing in the very year of Rodelinda's premiere, was inadvisable material for a London opera. It was almost as unknown to Handel's audience as it is to us. But this had advantages for Handel.
Because the story and its characters were unknown, Handel could do what he liked with characterization. There was no preconception about what the characters should say or do. And because the characters had no connotations for Handel's audience, or for us, we are unimpeded from identifying with them. We can meet them without the weight of history and centuries of other people's versions of them round their shoulders; we can more easily see ourselves in them; maybe (in keeping with the canons of 18th-century art) we can learn from them, convinced of their reality by Handel's music.
Dr. Ruth Smith is a Cambridge-based scholar and author of the critically acclaimed Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought.