The story takes place in and around Milan, the capital of the northern Italian kingdom of Lombardy, early in the 18th century. The original production took place in an early medieval setting. Other productions, such as the Stephen Wadsworth production at the Metropolitan Opera, moved the action to Handel's own time.
Bertarido, King of Lombardy and Milan, has been attacked and deposed by Grimoaldo, an ally of his estranged brother Gundeberto. Gundeberto was killed in the battle. Bertarido was forced to flee to Hungary, although nobody knew his exact location. He left his wife, the queen, Rodelinda, and a young son, Flavio, in the power of Grimoaldo. As a reward for defeating Bertarido, Grimoaldo was promised the hand of Bertarido's sister, Eduige. The marriage would grant him a legitimate claim to the throne at Milan. Eduige and Grimoaldo fell in love, but she would not marry him while mourning two brothers, one dead and the second presumed to be dead.
From abroad, Bertarido has sent word of his own death. His intention is to return to Milan in disguise, rescue his wife and son, and escape to an anonymous life from the vagaries of politics and the burden of government. The news of his death has devastated both Rodelinda and Eduige. Grimoaldo is intent on gaining the throne. He weighs his options, counseled by two advisors, Garibaldo, his closest aide, and Unulfo, a member of Bertarido's cabinet, who maintains intimate ties with the royal family and is the only person who knows that Bertarido is still alive.
Alone in the palace, Rodelinda mourns the supposed loss of her husband, Bertarido. The usurper, Grimoalldo, enters, declaring his long-hidden passion for her. He proposes marriage and offers her back the throne that is rightfully hers. Angrily, Rodelinda, rejects the offer, singing: "L'empio rigor del fato" ("The impious rigor of my adverse fate"). Eduige arrives at the apartment looking for Grimoaldo, to whom she was previously betrothed. He now tells Eduige that as she once spurned him, he will now spurn her. After Grimoaldo leaves, the scheming Garibaldo, counselor to Grimoaldo, professes his love for Eduige. She promises to return his love once she has had revenge on Grimoaldo: "Lo faro, diro, spietato." Alone, Garibaldo reveals that his love for Eduige is a ruse. His real plan is to gain the throne for himself: "Di cupido impiego, I vanni" ("On bright Cupids pow'rful wings to empire summits I would soar").
A cypress grove, with the tombs of the Lombardic kings. Among the monuments is one to Bertarido.
Bertarido, who is in hiding nearby, reads the inscription on his own memorial and expresses longing for his wife, Rodelinda: "Dove sei, amato, bene?" ("Where art thou, o my lovely treasure"). Along with his friend and counsellor Unulfo, he secretly watches Rodelinda and Flavio, her son, arrive and place flowers at his memorial. She weeps at her husband's fate.
Garibaldo enters with an ultimatum for Rodelinda. Either she agrees to marry Grimoaldo, or her son will be put to death. Assuming the upper hand, Rodelinda consents, but also vows to demand Garibaldo's death when she returns to the throne. Bertarido, still watching, is horrified. He takes Rodelinda's decision as an act of personal betrayal.
A great hall.
Garibaldo taunts Eduige, telling her that now, since she has lost Grimoaldo, she has missed her chance to become queen. Eduige satirically congratulates Rodelinda, noting her sudden decision to betray her husband's memory and marry his usurper. Rodelinda reminds Eduige of who is queen. Eduige vows vengeance on Grimoaldo. Eduige departs and Grimoaldo enters. Rodelinda lays out her terms for marrying Grimoaldo. He must kill Flavio with his own hands in front of her. Grimoaldo, horrified, refuses. After Rodelinda leaves, Garibaldo encourages Grimoaldo to carry out the order and take Rodelinda as his wife. Grimoaldo rejects the advice. He says that Rodelinda's act of courage and determination has made him love her all the more, although he has now lost hope of ever winning her affections. When the two advisors are alone, Unulfo asks Garibaldo how he could give a king such advice. Garibaldo expounds his tyrannical perspective on the use of power, singing: "Tirannia, gliel diede il regno").
Bertarido approaches the palace grounds in disguise, where his sister Eduige recognizes his voice. Eduige learns with pleasure that her brother's only desire is to rescue his wife and son, not to regain the kingdom, to which Eduige still aspires. Unolfo brings word of Rodelinda's fidelity. Eduige agrees to help Bertarido rescue his wife and son. Unolfo promises to pass a message to Rodelinda that her husband is still alive. Bertarido rejoices at the prospect of reunion.
A gallery in Rodelinda's apartment.
Rodelinda and Bertarido meet in secret, and are discovered in an embrace by Grimoaldo, who fails to recognize Bertarido. Grimoaldo is outraged, believing that Rodelinda has taken a lover. To save her honor, Bertarido reveals his identity, but Grimoaldo vows to kill him anyway, whoever he may be. The spouses bid each other a last farewell in a moving duet: "Io t'abbraccio, e piu che morte."
Unulfo and Eduige make a plan to release Bertarido from prison. They will smuggle him both a sword and the key to a secret passage that runs under the palace. Garibaldo advises Grimoaldo to put the unknown man – whether Bertarido or not – to death. Grimoaldo is racked by jealousy, passion, and fear.
A very dark prison.
Languishing in prison, Bertarido receives the sword, the key, and a written note. When Unulfo comes to release him, Bertarido mistakes the visitor in the darkness for the executioner and wounds him with the sword. Unulfo shrugs the injury off, and the two leave. Eduige guides Rodelinda into the cell. Finding it empty and with blood on the floor, they both fear that Bertarido is dead.
A royal garden.
Grimoaldo, now tormented by remorse, flees to the palace garden, hoping to find a peaceful spot where he can seek solace in sleep: "Pastorello d'un povero Armento." Garibaldo, finding him unprotected, decides to kill him. Bertarido appears and kills the intended assassin. He spares Grimoaldo: "Vivi, tiranno!" Grimoaldo renounces his claim to the throne of Milan and pledges himself once again to Eduige. He offers the throne back to Bertarido, who accepts it once he is assured that his wife and son will be returned to him. There is general rejoicing.
Highlights of the Opera
- Rodelinda was one of Handel's most successful operas in its day and is highly regarded in recent times. The story revolves around the unshakeable love of the title character, a queen who remains faithful to her husband's memory, despite his reported death. She resists the overtures by both political and emotional usurpers. Much of the opera's appeal lies in the realistic, rather than an allegorical portrait of a woman. Rodelinda is not the only Handel opera in which strong female characters play a major role. The same can be said for Agrippina, Alcina, and Cleopatra.
- Handel wrote the major roles in Rodelinda for specific singers. He wrote the role of Rodelinda for his current leading prima donna, Francesca Cuzzoni, who had also created the role of Cleopatra. Cuzzoni was admired for her remarkable technique and for the beauty of her sound. Handel capitalized on these qualities in Rodelinda's arias. For example, when we first meet Rodelinda in a dank apartment where she is imprisoned with her son, she sings the doleful C-minor aria "Ho perduto il caro sposo" ("My love, my life, is lost, is gone"). The music shows her weighted down by grief and feeling hopeless about her situation. Moments later, when the usurper Grimoaldo arrives with a marriage proposal, with pride and steel in her voice, she sings "L'empio rigor del fato" ("The impious rigour of my adverse fate may make me wretched, but can't make me mean"), an aria lashed by furious violins and alternating short, blunt vocal phrases with angry coloratura. Later, when she takes her son Flavio to visit Bertarido's memorial monument, she reveals her vulnerable side in the beautiful aria "Ombre, piante ume funeste" ("Ye gloomy groves, and rev'rend shades, urns, that with terror seem to rise"). To complement the female protagonist, Handel chose an orchestra that omitted the brass instruments and drums of war and that focused on the gentler colors of flutes, recorders, and oboes, alongside strings.
- There are still more examples of the beautiful music that Handel wrote for Rodelinda. When Unulfo tells Rodelinda that her husband is actually alive, she sings the moving aria "Ritorna, o caro e dolce mio Tesoro" ("Return, my dear and sweet treasure"), showing her softer side and great love for Bertarido. Set to a Sicilian rhythm, it is a simple Handelian melody that sticks in the memory. In Act III, when the plot to free Bertarido from prison appears to have failed and that Bertarido has died in the attempt, Rodelinda falls to her lowest ebb and sings the gorgeous lament "Se 'l mio duol non e si forte."
- Other characters are equally portrayed in both words and music. Grimoaldo pressures Rodelinda for marriage in order to legitimize his seizure of the country. In spite of his political motivation, he is far from a stock villain and can act with honor. The dethroned Bertarido (a role originally written for a castrato, but sung nowadays by a countertenor), is an ideal and believable representation of a devoted and loving husband. Eduige, Bertarido's sister, struggles to find her place in a changing world. Every character is driven by dramatically credible motivations and the human emotions that accompany them. The music is both subtle and bold.
- Handel wrote the role of Bertarido for castrato Francesco Bernardi, professionally known as Senesino, and one of the most popular singers of the day. Bertarido is impulsive and driven by his emotions, especially his love for his wife, Rodelinda. He alternates between passive self-pity and ill-considered action, especially when he stabs his true friend and wise counselor, Unulfo. Although he is the rightful ruler of the country, he seems to have little interest in recovering the throne. Although Bertarido cannot be described as truly heroic, Handel's music for him is magnificent. In Act I, he sings the meltingly tender "Dove sei, amato bene?" The aria is a subline love song expressing Bertarido's longing for a reunion with Rodelinda. At the end of Act I, however, believing that Rodelinda has betrayed him with Grimoaldo, he bursts into the furious "Confusa si miri l'infida consorte," an aria with explosive starts and stops where his jealousy runs wild.
- In Act II, Bertarido, whom only Unulfo knows to be still alive, morosely skulks in the shadows. In the aria "Con rauco mormorio" ("With hoarse, rough murm'ring streams, each brook…"), he indulges in the pathetic fallacy. Nature's brooks, caves, and mountains mourn with him in the B section of the aria. Handel evidently became concerned about making Bertarido too passive, and in the first revival of the opera, he added the brilliant Act III aria "Vivi, tiranno! Io t'ho scampato," as Bertarido rescues Grimaldo, kills the evil Garibaldo, and at last assumes his kingly dignity.
- The role of Grimoaldo, like those of Rodelinda and Bertarido, was written with a particular singer in mind. That tenor, Francesco Borosini, was Handel's newest tenor discovery. Unlike Garibaldo, who is an Iago-like figure, Grimoaldo possesses a conscience, which is his final undoing. In Act III, he unravels emotionally. He begins with a recitative, "Fatto inferno e il mio petto," and moves to an innocent aria, "Pastorello d'un povero armento," in which he longs to be nothing more than a poor shepherd with no worldly cares.
- The librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym, was a man of many talents. In addition to being a librettist, he was a theater manager, cellist, and composer in his own right. He wrote the librettos for several Handel operas, including Rodelinda, Tamerlano, and Giulio Cesare. Haym was particularly good at taking unwieldy stories from past centuries and shaping them into compelling dramas.
- Although Handel and Haym had a strong collaborative relationship, there were times in Rodelinda when Handel himself took responsibility for the libretto. Here is an example. In Act II, Rodelinda is in a perilous situation as Grimoaldo forces her to choose between marrying him or letting her son die. Rodelinda expertly reads the weakness of Grimoaldo's resolve. She turns the tables on him by agreeing that she will marry him, provided that he kills Flavio, her son, before her very eyes. Handel himself wrote the words to "Spietati, io vi giurai," Rodelinda's denunciation of Garibaldo.
- The plot for Rodelinda was derived from the eighth-century Paul the Deacon, who chronicled the travails of the Lombardian kings of the seventh century. In 1652, the classical French dramatist Pierre Corneille turned the story into a play called Pertharite, Roi de Lombards. The play was so unsuccessful that Corneille ceased writing plays for seven years. In 1710, Antonio Salvi salvaged the story for an opera libretto that was subsequently used by a number of composers. Dissatisfied with the ponderous succession of recitatives and arias, Haydn instructed Haym to overhaul it. The result was a swift-moving plot that kept the attention of the audience throughout the work.
- The orchestra for Rodelinda, as for Baroque music in general, is small by today's standards. The instruments include recorders, theorbo (a bass lute), and harpsichord. Handel creates a wonderful sound, both for the instruments themselves and as accompaniment to the singers. According to the dramatic conventions of 18th-century opera seria, action and plot development are found in the harpsichord accompanied recitatives, while solo arias are the primary methods for emotional expression.
- Particularly brilliant is the portrayal of the characters' moods. We hear lamenting (Bertarido's "Dove sei, amato bene?"), scheming (Eduige's "De' miei scherni per far le vendette"), fury (the lead soprano's "Morrai, si; l'empia tua ntesta"). One of the highlights of the opera is the duet for Rodelinda and Bertarido that concludes Act II ("lo t'abbraccio, e piu che morte"). The loving husband and wife, who had seemingly lost each other forever, are briefly reunited before they must separate again.
- The premiere of Rodelinda took place at the King's Theatre in London on February 13, 1725. There were 14 performances. It was repeated in December 1725 and in May 1731. Each revival included changes and fresh material. In 1735 and 1736, it was performed with modest success at the Oper am Gansemarkt in Hamburg, Germany. The first modern production, in heavily altered form, took place in Gottingen in 1920, where it was the first in a series of modern Handel opera revivals produced by Handel enthusiast Oskar Hagen.
- The first performance of Rodelinda in the United States took place in 1931. The opera was revived in London in 1939. Another London production by the Handel Opera society took place in 1959. The performance was in English, and there were numerous cuts in the text. Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker sang major roles. Since the revival of interest in Baroque music in the 1960s, there have been many performances at festivals and opera houses, including but not limited to the Glyndebourne Festival, the English National Opera, the Gran Theatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, and the Dutch National Opera. The premiere of the Stephen Wadsworth production at the Metropolitan Opera took place in December, 2004, with Renee Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, David Daniels, Bejun Mehta, Kobie van Rensburg, and John Relyea. It was revived in 2006, 2011, and again in 2022.
About this Website
The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.
Questions and Additional Information
Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or firstname.lastname@example.org.