Handel’s Rodelinda at Carnegie Hall – Harry Bicket directs The English Concert with Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, Eric Ferring, Christine Rice & Brandon Cedel

Rodelinda – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, adapted from a libretto by Antonio Salvi, itself based on the play Pertharite, Roi des Lombards by Pierre Corneille [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]

Rodelinda – Lucy Crowe
Bertarido – Iestyn Davies
Unulfo – Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Grimoaldo – Eric Ferring
Eduige – Christine Rice
Garibaldo – Brandon Cedel

The English Concert
Harry Bicket

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 10 December, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Now in its tenth year, the annual Handel matinee concert by Harry Bicket and The English Concert has become a Carnegie Hall tradition. This year the ensemble presented Rodelinda, the work’s first full performance at the hall in over fifty years. Though this was an opera in concert (no sets, costumes or props), it delivered plenty of drama – from the music itself, and from the acting of the charismatic singers, who only occasionally consulted their scores; instead they interacted with one another as they moved freely about the stage they shared with the orchestra and conductor.

Leading a uniformly splendid cast was Lucy Crowe in the title role. Her character faces a hopeless dilemma. Her husband Bertarido, King of Lombardy, is reported to have died in battle, and she must wed Grimoaldo, the usurper of his throne, or watch him murder her son. Unknown to her, Bertarido is still alive but in hiding. He ultimately returns, reclaims both his wife and throne, and makes peace with his enemies. Throwing herself wholeheartedly into the melodrama, Crowe used her wide-ranging, clarion soprano to deliver a thrilling portrayal – dramatically riveting and musically resplendent. Among many stirring moments was her gorgeous rendition of ‘Ombre, piante, urne funeste!’, the Act One echo aria in which her somber recollections of marital bliss are imitated by a solo flute. Another was the vehement ‘Spietati, io vi giurari’ in Act Two, where she made each word – in a text known to have been penned by Handel himself – sting, as she denounced Grimoaldo and his counselor Garibaldo. 

As Bertarido, the rightful ruler of the Lombards, Iestyn Davies plunged straight into the heart of the primo uomo role to create a profoundly passionate, highly credible characterization. His limpid, stunningly dexterous countertenor was captivating throughout the three-hour opera seria, but most spectacular in his heartbreaking delivery of ‘Dove sei’, the gorgeous Act One introductory aria in which he expresses his longing to be with his beloved wife, and in his energetic delivery of the jubilant ‘Vivi, tiranno’ in Act Three when he returns to his kingly power after killing Garibaldo. His voice blended perfectly with Crowe’s – neither one dominating the exchange – in their immensely moving farewell duet, ‘L’abbracio’ at the end of Act Two, where their exquisite singing was enhanced by the delicate accompaniment of the brilliant instrumental ensemble.

Grimoaldo, one of the rare leading roles for a tenor in Handel’s operas, is particularly challenging as the ambivalent character vacillates between villainy and compassion, but with his beautiful voice and fine acting, Eric Ferring managed to pull it off convincingly. He was his most touching in the Act Two ‘Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena’, the aria in which he reveals he is still in love with Rodelinda even though he has no hope of winning her.

Countertenor Arey Nussbaum Cohen made the most of his three arias in the part of Unulfo, the nobleman and friend of the deposed king. He was most impressive in his coloratura account of ‘Un zeffiro spiro’ in Act Three. As Bertarido’s sister, the jilted Eduige, mezzo Christine invested the role with just the right touch of comedy, and Brandon Cedel brought focused energy and a precise and powerful bass-baritone to his portrayal of Garibaldo, the friend of Grimoaldo who feigns love for Eduige.

The English Concert featured strings, a flute, two oboes/recorders, a bassoon/recorder, a theorbo, and two back-to-back harpsichords. The players displayed exceptional sensitivity and precision as they responded to Bicket’s cues and graceful arm movements. Conducting from one of the harpsichords, the maestro demonstrated superb command of the pulsing, dance-like rhythms and elicited a gripping and spirited account of one of Handel’s greatest operas.

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