Handel's Rodrigo

Riccarda Wesseling, Bayo, Cencic; Al Ayre Espanol/Lopez Banzo (Naive/Ambroisie AM 132)

30 May 2009 4 stars

Handel's Rodrigo

Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria or Rodrigo was Handel's first opera written in and for Italy. Given its first performance sometime in the autumn of 1707, Rodrigo predates the great operas of 1724 (Tamerlano, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda) by almost two decades, and in all honesty it's not quite of the same distinguished calibre.

Nor does it help that sections of the score are missing and have had to be replaced for this recording (based on the work of the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe). The piece has had a troubled history: the autograph draft score was the basis for reconstructions for many years, yet it is missing the first scene and part of the second scene of Act 1, plus the first two and final scene of Act 3. The last few decades have made a fuller construction possible, however, with the identification of a couple of numbers in two English anthologies from the eighteenth century; then in 1983 the whole of the third act was discovered. Even now, though, the opening of the first act and the duet that was once intended to conclude the second scene of Act 3 are both missing, and have had to be replaced, as have the missing recitatives from Act 1.

Bearing all of that in mind, however, anyone who loves the vocal music of this era will find it difficult to resist the charm of Handel's creation, especially when it's so persuasively performed by Al Ayre Español and Eduardo López Banzo. Those of us who relish the sound of period instrument orchestras will be entranced by the beautifully precise yet richly nuanced playing of the ensemble. What comes across particularly well, thanks to the superb engineering, is the sound of the solo string instruments: you can really hear the workings of the bow across the strings, and there's clearly been no temptation to homogenise the sound to remove these aspects of the performance.

Banzo manipulates the recitatives brilliantly from the harpsichord, not seeing them as boring, bare passages to be glossed over but vital elements of the overall dramatic structure. He plays with great relish, underlining rather than hiding the dissonances, and always exploring the wide expressive range of the instrument. There's nothing wanting in his conducting of the accompanied numbers, either: the singers have room to breathe, and it's neither too slow nor too fast. The articulation of the string playing is perhaps the strongest point: Banzo clearly realises that there are more options open to him than just staccato and legato, and he encourages all kinds of shapes within the musical lines to create the most persuasive performance possible.

A couple of the cast members have small technical shortcomings, but because the ensemble gels so persuasively as a whole, these rarely impede on the listening experience. So although there are signs of strain or imperfect tuning just very occasionally from Maria Riccarda Wesseling's Rodrigo, Maria Bayo's Esilena and Sharon Rostorf-Zamir's Florinda, it's never distracting. Wesseling is a notably proud, haughty King, and as the consequences of Rodrigo's ignoble behaviour become increasingly apparent, so too does Wesseling's performance become increasingly impassioned. I'm impressed with Rostorf-Zamir's lovely bright soprano, and if Bayo occasionally has to reach for the upper notes (for example in 'Empio fato, e fiera sorte'), she instils the words with so much feeling that it never matters.

The stars of the show, in my view, are the men. Max Emanuel Cencic is outstanding as Fernando. One could say that he offers absolute perfection – how does he achieve such evenness in the runs in 'Dopo I nembi', for instance? – but that would be to undermine the artistry he brings to the role in equal measure. Words, line, dynamics and articulation are all magical, and the quality of tone he achieves is, in my experience, quite rare for a countertenor. It's just a shame that he dies at the end of the second act and has comparatively little to do. Kobie van Renburg also makes a valuable contribution as Giuliano, singing with surprising flexibility for a tenor of his size.

We're experiencing a perhaps unreasonable saturation of Handel recordings in his anniversary year, and I can't help but worry that it's going to go the way of the Mozart celebrations of 2006 and conclude with too much of a good thing. Yet this Rodrigo really is a performance of enormous merit on its own, and in Naïve/Ambroisie's lavish packaging and superb sound, it's got to be near the top of the list for recent complete opera recordings.

By Dominic McHugh


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