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Concert Report/ Ensemble San Felice: "Handel - Rodrigo"

img  Tobias

Even though reverence for his work has long stood in the shadow of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, Handel has been “the man” for this year's Lufthansa Festival up until now. His arias left a devastating impression on the first night and “Rodrigo” represents by far the most spectacularly staged performance of the entire week. With a special addendum to the program notes coming in flashy colors and with screaming neo-punk imagery, it is in fact a statement of historical correctness, musical discovery and of 21st century fashion at the same time. No wonder then, that my immediate seat-neighbors arrive clad in purple period clothes and sporting silver shoes – who said classical music did not have a pop factor? As an additional blessing, I have been given a chair in one of the first rows, allowing me to follow every tiny gesture or facial expression up close and personal.

To further enhance the experience, a video track is running non-stop alongside the musical development, operated from a faintly glowing Notebook just behind the curtains at the far right of the podium. Consisting of nothing but pencil sketches, whom the camera zooms in and out of, it neither adds to the story, nor to the mood, nor does it represent a contemporary piece of set design. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the images occasionally highlight certain parts of the text, depicting scenes of aggression, for example, as warlord Evanco and legionnaire Fernando (played by Susanna Rigacci and Caterina Calvi respectively) take the stage. Even though the video adds a certain depth to the action, it never really convincingly explains its existence and comes across as a bit of an anachronism, especially as part of a performance which comes accompanied with claims of high authenticity. “I still haven't figured out all of this projection stuff”, someone says during the interval. Me neither, actually.

Who cares for such details, however, when there is so much music to be enjoyed. “Rodrigo” is no longer an obscure footnote to the Handel legacy, having already been recorded and performed several times before. Holes in the manuscript have been filled and historical analysis has replaced missing arias with other, closely connected works from the composer's oeuvre. Its prestige is sure to grow even more, as the royal firework of melodies that Handel ignites here is almost beyond description. Every single one of the mere six characters is given at least one noteworthy aria and the two duets between Rodrigo and his wife Esilena are painfully beautiful. Even though the second act starts out in a contemplative mood, with many long recitatives slowing the pace of the opera down and the story lacking the dramatic urge of some of Handel's later works, its gradual rise towards the finale, which unites all singers in a glorified choir, easily makes up for this.

What I find so convincing about an “original practice” approach like the one directed by Federico Bardazzi and his good-humored and aptly titled Ensemble San Felice (who are all smiles during the performance) is that it shows the power of minimalism and how much can be achieved without the pomp of a humoungous line-up. Separated into a small orchestra at the left (which lays down sensitive accompaniments in the arias) and an agile recitative trio on the right (who are just as passionate and energetic as their counterparts), the musicians develop a sound capable of depicting a wide range of emotions, from the tender to the furious, from the joyous to the depressed. The players even find themselves integrated into the theatrical action, as Bardazzi is gently “abused” for a stone pillar by Soprano Laura Cherici.

With a cast as small as this one, each singer is given a unique chance to prove what she or he is worth. Greedily, everyone makes use of this opportunity tonight. Annamaria dell'Oste lays down a truly frenzied, yet fragile and hurt Florinda (whose lust for revenge causes all hell to break loose, when Rodrigo dumps her), Gloria Banditelli portrays Rodrigo as a man who, in the moment of truth, realises his family is the most important thing in his life and Leonardo De Lisi (remarkably the only male performer here) charges between ostensible strength and inner doubts with a supple and warm deep tenor voice.

Even though the conflict between Florinda and Rodrigo is at the heart of the story, one can not escape the notion that Handel fell in love with the character of Esilena when writing the opera. He has bestowed some of the most obviously charming, moving and contagious pieces on her, given her plenty of stage time and even sending her to Rodrigo's rescue in the deciding scene, when she saves both of their lives with a heartfelt plea for mercy. Quite naturally, then Laura Cherici is the focal personage of the evening, her shining lines rising high above the music, clear yet never without tiny impurities, growls of anger, despair or desperation, which make her voice so human and emotive. When her Soprano merges with Banditelli's mature Mezzo in the short but intense “Adio”, a hall of roughly 800 guests holds its breath.

One of the San Felice's is playing his violin amidst the crowds leaving St. John's at the end, sending them home with a musical souvenir and you can still hear people whistling some of the themes on the street blocks away from the church. Even though these will be the last notes of Handel for the Lufthansa Festival until it heads for Westminster Abbey on its final night, the former citizen of London is still “the man” in a city which has never forgotten him.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music
Homepage: Ensemble San Felice

Article in serie

1 Concert Report/ Ensemble San Felice: "Handel - Rodrigo"
Live at St John's Smith ...
2 Concert Program/ Ensemble San Felice: "Handel - Rodrigo"
From the official Program Notes: ...
3 Concert Report/ Concordia & Elin Manahan Thomas
Lie at St. John's Smith ...
4 Concert Program/ Concordia & Elin Manahan Thomas
From the official Program Notes: ...
5 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2008: Day 3
London, May 17th: Concordia & ...

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