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

Like many operas of Handel's era, Rodelinda has a fairly complicated story. Yet unlike some of those other operas, the story actually makes a great deal of sense -- in large part because the desires motivations of its many characters are all clear and straightforward. Between that and the fact that the production featured here is sung in English, the story might actually be easier to follow than one might expect.

The action takes place in 7th-century Milan.  Rodelinda is the city's rightful queen. But her husband Bertarido, who should be the king, has been usurped by the powerful duke Grimoaldo. After his defeat Bertarido fled to Hungary, and spread the rumor that he was dead. As ACT ONE begins, that's what everyone thinks. But instead, Bertarido has returned to Milan in disguise, hoping to be reunited with Rodelinda and their young son Flavio.

That won't be easy. Grimoaldo is keeping a close eye on Rodelinda, with the help of another duke, Garibaldo. Grimoaldo had been engaged to marry Bertarido's sister Eduige. But Grimoaldo has recently broken that engagement. The woman he wants now is Rodelinda herself, as marrying her would help to cement his rule over Milan.

Not surprisingly, Rodelinda wants no part of Grimoaldo, the man who ousted her husband. When Grimoaldo proposes to her, she rejects him in no uncertain terms. Grimoaldo also has another problem: Eduige is angry at being dumped. So when Grimoaldo's supposed ally Garibaldo approaches her with a romantic eye, she's receptive. In truth, Garibaldo only wants to use Eduige to gain the throne for himself, though that does give them one thing in common. They both want to get rid of Grimoaldo.

Meanwhile, Bertarido has returned to Milan with the help of Unulfo -- a friend who also has access to Grimoaldo's inner circle. As Bertarido and Unulfo watch in secret, Garibaldo approaches Rodelinda. He tells her that Grimoaldo is determined to marry her. And to emphasize that, he grabs her son Flavio. He puts a knife to the boy's throat, and says that if she refuses Grimoaldo again, Flavio will die. To save her son, Rodelinda reluctantly gives in. She also warns Garibaldo that once she and Grimoaldo are married, and she becomes queen, she'll see to it that Garibaldo is beheaded -- though when Grimoaldo arrives, he assures Garibaldo that he'll be protected.

When they all leave, Bertarido and Unulfo come out of hiding. For his part, Bertarido is no longer interested in the throne of Milan -- he simply wants his wife and son back. But he's just watched as Rodelinda accepted Grimoaldo's proposal, and as the act ends Bertarido curses what he sees as a betrayal.

In ACT TWO, we again meet Bertarido's sister Eduige, the woman Grimoaldo dumped to pursue Rodelinda. Now, the scheming duke Garibaldo comes to Eduige. Garibaldo in love with her, and tells her that since she's lost Grimoaldo, she may as well marry him, instead. She hesitates. Plainly, she still has feelings for Grimoaldo. Eduige then goes to Rodelinda, asking how she can possibly marry the loathsome Grimoaldo, who has now betrayed both Eduige and Bertarido.

Grimoaldo approaches Rodelinda, to see if she really is willing to marry him. She says yes, but with one, shocking condition: Grimoaldo must first murder her own son, Flavio. Rodelinda says she can't possibly marry a usurper while she is also the mother of the rightful heir to the throne.  Grimoaldo approaches Flavio with a knife, but as Rodelinda suspected, he can't bring himself to kill the boy. The treacherous Garibaldo sees that as a sign of weakness.

The scene changes and we find Bertarido alone, wondering if he'll ever get back with Rodelinda. Eduige sees him. She's delighted to find her brother alive and well. He tells her that his only goal is to reunite with his wife and son; he has no desire to reclaim the kingdom.  Eduige is glad to hear this, as she'd rather like to take the throne for herself.

Bertarido's friend Unulfo appears, and assures Bertarido that Rodelinda has been faithful.  Unulfo then takes Bertarido to see Rodelinda, and they're together at last. But the joyful reunion is interrupted with Grimoaldo shows up, finding the two in a passionate embrace.  He's never met Bertarido, who defiantly identifies himself. Hearing that, Rodelinda is afraid for Bertarido's life, and says "this man is lying" --

claiming that Bertarido really is dead. But Grimoaldo doesn't really care one way or another.  He says that whoever this interloper is, he'll soon be executed. He does agree to leave the couple alone for a final goodbye, and the two sing a moving duet.

In ACT THREE Eduige decides that, whatever her own ambitions, allowing Grimoaldo to execute her own brother is too much. She finds Bertarido's friend Unulfo and gives him a key to Bertarido's cell, to attempt a rescue. In the meantime, the treacherous duke Garibaldo senses something is up and urges Grimoaldo to kill Bertarido as quickly as possible. But Grimoaldo is feeling less and less comfortable with the situation, and hesitates. Garibaldo offers Grimoaldo a choice of weapons to dispatch Bertarido, but Grimoaldo can't go through with it.

In the dungeon, Bertarido is contemplating his fate when someone drops a sword into his cell. When the cell door then begins to open he assumes he's about to be executed, and lashes out with the sword. The intruder, it turns out, is Unulfo, who is slightly wounded, with Unulfo's blood staining Bertarido's cloak. Unulfo gives Bertarido a change of clothing as a disguise, and the two sneak out of the dungeon together.

When they're gone, Eduige shows up with Rodelinda. They find the bloodstained cloak and assume Bertarido has been murdered.

The final scene is in the palace garden, where Bertarido and Unulfo are hiding. Grimoaldo enters. Wracked with guilt over all his misdeeds, he lies down to sleep, while imagining a simpler life. 

Garibaldo appears. He has decided that Grimoaldo is a weak link and wants him out of the way.  Garibaldo draws a knife to kill Grimoaldo, but Bertarido appears and drives him off.  There's a struggle offstage, and Bertarido reappears, having killed Garibaldo. Rodelinda is amazed to find Bertarido still alive, and Unulfo and Eduige admit to saving him from the dungeon.

Hearing that, Grimoaldo finally relents. Tired of all the backstabbing and intrigue, he yields the kingdom to Bertarido. He also agrees to marry Eduige after all, and rule with her in the nearby kingdom of Pavia. With that, everyone is satisfied, and the opera ends.