Handel's Cosmopolitan Connections, on Display in 'Rodelinda'

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If there was ever a genuinely multi-cultural composer, it was George Frideric Handel, a native of Germany who made his fortune -- and it was a big one -- writing and staging Italian operas in London.

Handel appeared on the English opera scene in 1711, and over the next 30 years or so became one of the country's true, musical superstars, composing hit after hit using the same reliable formula:  He was a German composer, writing Italian operas for eager, English-speaking audiences.

But like all trends in entertainment, that one didn't last forever. In the 1730s and '40s, London opera-goers began to lose interest in Italian opera. Tastes were changing, and Handel changed right along with them.  The result was a musical genre Handel made virtually all his own -- the English oratorio, including what is likely the most popular oratorio ever composed, his Messiah.

In some ways, Handel's oratorios were similar to his operas. They told compelling stories, and were often highly dramatic. But in other ways they were quite different. In particular, the oratorios were written and sung in English, not Italian. So, unlike with his operas, his audiences actually understood the words, which surely added to their appeal.

So, why didn't Handel simply write his operas in English?  Apparently, it just wasn't done that way in 18th-century London.  Operas in the Italian style were expected to be sung in Italian.  It's hard to say how Handel might have fared if he had started writing English-language operas instead of switching genres altogether; centuries have gone by, and the demands of audiences have changed. 

Still, it is possible to get an idea of what such an opera might have sounded like.  The premiere of Handel's Rodelinda took place in London in 1725, and featured a distinguished cast of singers -- largely Italian singers.  This week on World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a 2014 production of the opera, also from London and also with a distinguished cast. But this time it's a cast of mainly British singers, performing the opera in a new, English translation.

The production is by the English National Opera, coming to us from London's Coliseum Theatre, just a short walk from where the opera's world premiere took place nearly 300 years ago, at the King's Theatre, Haymarket. The cast includes soprano Rebecca Evans in the title role, with countertenor Iestyn Davies giving a knockout performance in role of Bertarido, Rodelinda's exiled husband. The performance is led by conductor Christian Curnyn.