on 19 August 2012
The first thing to be said on this opera is that it requires four "castrati" normally replaced today by "countertenors" who can be of different pitches and have different ranges. This recording goes back to the original score and thus has four countertenors. This is essential as we are going to see.
There exists only one other recording of this opera by the Brewer Chamber Orchestra directed by Rudolph Palmer and actually recorded in 1996. This older recording has only one countertenor, what's more for Gernando? the traitor, which is providing this countertenor with a very black outlook and at the same time is restricting this countertenor pitch to this very dark role. In other words it replaces the three other "castrati" with three female mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, Faramondo, Adolfo and Childerico, the first two of these three being leading parts in the opera. As the opera says so well this has to come from the mind of a "barbaro traditor", a barbaric traitor, and that barbaric traitor is Rudolph Palmer who more or less kept the tradition and I am sure in the 19th century even Gernando was replaced by a female mezzo-soprano, though there probably was an alternative score, like for Agrippina, with tenors and baritones instead of "castrati".
The four countertenors are essential for the vocal beauty and balance of the opera. As we are going to see Faramondo sung by Max Emmanuel Cencic is opposed to Rosimonda who is a mezzo-soprano. The two have very close pitches and their ranges are nearly similar. The closing duet of the second act is of course superbly amplified by this choice. Note the two names Raramondo and Rosimonda use the same "mondo/a" root.
Then Adolfo sung by Philippe Jaroussky is opposed to Clotilde who is a soprano which is perfect since Jaroussky has the pitch of a soprano and his range is very similar to that of the soprano he is associated to. The second duet of the opera (and there are only two) that brings together these two characters is of course transmuted by the choice.
The third pair is Gernando sung by Xavier Sabata who is associated to Teobaldo, a baritone, and Faramondo, a countertenor as well as Gustavo a bass. Gernando is the traitor in the opera and he is opposed to Faramondo (a slightly lighter and higher countertenor) who is his ally who he betrays with the help of Teobaldo (a baritone) who does not seem to understand what he is doing though he knows and has private interest in the bleak situation created by the initial death of Sveno, officially Gustavo's son, in fact Teobaldo's son. Note Gustavo is a bass. But the killing on the battle field of Sveno by Faramondo is the key to the opera since it motivates the vengeance, "vendetta," Gustavo wants and his desire to have Faramondo killed.
The last countertenor is a lot less important since he is impersonating Childerico. He is Terry Wey a light and rather high pitched countertenor. He is the confidant of Rosimonda at first as the son of Teobaldo though he will be revealed to be Gustavo's son at the end, hence Rosimonda's brother. There too the two voices are close.
Why do I insist on these elements? Because the pairs set up by Handel in three cases, two of which were replaced by mezzo-sopranos or sopranos by Rudolph Palmer, are essential to the musical and vocal balance of the opera, and these two are the only two duets of the opera, hence bringing together two singers who have practically only their body harmonics to differentiate them. That is an extremely important element and that goes back to Handel's time when these two "castrati" would have been opposed to two "sopranos" or "divas". And we are back to the turning point in Handel's music modern rendition: the two exhibitions produced by the Handel House Museum in London in 2006: "Handel and castrati" and in 2008 "Handel and Divas" that have revealed the essential part played by these two types of "prima donnas" in Handel's times and the consequences on Handel's style and operas.
In that perspective, and for the Handel House Museum Ita Marquet writes in 2009: "The exhibitions Handel and the Castrati (2006) and Handel and the Divas (2008) showcased artists giving interesting insights into male and female singers with whom he worked. Through portraits, scores, objects and the music they sang, the exhibitions explored the careers, rivalries, successes, failures and stories of scandalous behind the scenes behaviour which made castrati and divas the talk of the earlier centuries in London." (Website:[...])
This being solved we can consider the opera itself.
The plot is very complicated and at the same time very simple. It's a war situation with The Cambrians on one side led by their king Gustavo and his general Teobaldo. His elder son Sveno was killed in battle by Faramondo. Gustavo has a daughter Rosimonda and another son Adolfo. Rosimonda has a confidant Childerico. Gustavo is a bass and Teobaldo a baritone. Adolfo is a countertenor and Rosimonda a mezzo-soprano.
On the other side Faramondo, the king of the Franks, is allied to Gernando, the king of the Swabians. Faramondo who is a lot younger than Gustavo, has a sister Clotilde. Faramondo and Gernando are countertenors and Clotilde is a soprano.
The hazards of war makes Rosimonda the prisoner of Faramondo and Clotilde the prisoner of Gustavo. The two women are desired by two men on the side on which they are held prisoners. Clotilde is desired by Adolfo and Gustavo. The choice is simple and what's more Adolfo is not at all keen on avenging Sveno. Rosimonda is loved by Faramondo and Gernando. She is strongly inclined to set her vengeful project or request first and thus will lean towards Gernando when he betrays and he will betray his ally to win Rosimonda. But Rosimonda really loves Faramondo. All that happens in the opera then is the story of a betrayal and the final revelation, which reveals another betrayal, that solves the vengeance: Sveno was Teobaldo's son and not Gustavo's, whereas Childerico was not Teobaldo's son but Gustavo's. Then since one of Gustavo's sons was not killed by Faramondo, all is well that ends well. Adolfo can have Clotilde and Faramondo can have Rosimonda. The final revelation happens when Gustavo in the execution ring is going to behead Faramondo who accepted to be beheaded because of the satisfaction that would give to Rosimonda who he loves.
Four essential male characters are depicted. Gustavo is an old vengeful fool, even ready to have his own son Adolfo executed because he freed Clotilde. Adolfo is a charming young man who is so deeply in love that he is ready to do anything to satisfy the woman he loves, hence to free her from custody, which means betraying his own father. Gernando is shown as a vicious ambitious social climber. He wants Rosimonda at any cost and he betrays his ally Faramondo, gets into a pact with Teobaldo to further that betrayal and force Faramondo to surrender to Gustavo, endangering his own life. Strangely enough Gustavo will be forgiven in his shame by Faramondo. And Gernando will be forgiven too by Faramondo but rejected by everyone. Note Teobaldo dies in battle far away and it is on his death bed that he writes the letter that reveals his treachery.
The main character is Faramondo. He killed Sveno in battle, hence not personally. There should be no vendetta, no vengeance since it was a regular battle. But Faramondo who loves Rosimonda does not only want to win her physically, which after all he has done since she is his prisoner, but he wants to win her sentimentally which she refuses because of the vengeance Gustavo has decreed. Faramondo then jeopardizes his own victory by accepting to submit himself to Gustavo and by accepting Gustavo's vengeful decision to behead him because that's what Rosimonda wants too. That's foolish, but that's typical of a young sentimental king. His sentiments are stronger than his reason and he is ready to accept anything that comes from the woman he loves, including his own death.
That reveals the fact that Rosimonda is just the same type of a fool her own father is. She does not see her future interest but only her father's will. She is in other words father-dominated and suffers of father-fixation. On the other hand Clotilde is a lot more reasonable, sensible: she wants Adolfo, Adolfo wants her, so she does not care what happens, not one iota more than Adolfo. That is foolish too since Gustavo decides to have them executed. But on one side the foolishness of vengeance and on the other side the foolishness of love. The two are not the same at all. Reason is in the motivation not in the end, though we could say that in both cases the protagonists lose their heads, for vengeance or for love.
But the main point here has to do with the vocal performance. Due to the presence of four countertenors the pairs are perfect. Faramondo and Rosimonda are very close in pitch and range. Same thing at a slightly higher pitch with Adolfo and Clotilde. Same thing with Childerico and Rosimonda, though this pair is hardly used. The third "pair" is in fact a set of three pairs. Gernando is not contrasted to women who have the same range as him, but essentially to three men: Gustavo a bass, Teobaldo a baritone and Faramondo a countertenor who is slightly lighter than him. The three essential countertenors are positioned as follows: Jaroussky at the top with the highest pitch. Cencic in the middle with a slightly deeper pitch and Sabata at the bottom with the deepest pitch, though of course the three are countertenors but the score differentiates them with the music. Then their pairing with respectively a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a bass, a baritone and a countertenor is just perfect and it is a crime against Handel and artistic humanity to change these balancing pairs.
As I said before there are only two duets in the opera, the first one closes the second act: with Faramondo and Rosimonda. The second one is in the second scene of the third act with Adolfo and Clotilde. Both duets are perfect since they express love, and the unity it implies even if it is warped by vengeance in one case, and are extremely close in pitch. Unity in pitch and difference in body harmonics. We have to note the three acts end with Faramondo. An aria for the first act, a duet for the second act and an aria with chorus for the third act. That shows how treacherous the replacing of "castrati" by "sopranos is.
As a conclusion, so far it is Jean Claude Malgoire with Agrippina in 2004 and this recording by Diego Fasolis in 2008 that finally restored Handel in his real and original beauty. The ball is in the field of all conductors and opera houses in the world: they have to dare go back to Handel's original scores, even if countertenors are more expensive than sopranos or mezzo-sopranos. At least Rudolph Palmer avoided using a 19th century score in which the main castrati would have been replaced by tenors or baritones, like in the Agrippina of Arnold Östman. We can see that the first exhibition of the Handel House Museum in 2006 is central in the dynamic of this revival.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU