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Rodelinda, The English Concert, Bicket, Saffron Hall review - perfect team helps us stay the long Handel course | reviews, news & interviews

Rodelinda, The English Concert, Bicket, Saffron Hall review - perfect team helps us stay the long Handel course

Rodelinda, The English Concert, Bicket, Saffron Hall review - perfect team helps us stay the long Handel course

Saffron Hall celebrates its 10th anniversary in the greatest possible style

Lucy Crowe as Rodelinda with Harry Bicket and members of the English ConcertAll images Shanghai Concert Hall/The English Concert

If ever a marriage was made in heaven, it would have to be the one between Lucy Crowe’s beleaguered Queen Rodelinda and Iestyn Davies’ King Bertarido, the husband she believes dead and almost loses a second time. The duet at the end of Handel’s gem-packed Act Two where they’re reunited and then separated again was peerlessly moving as they performed it last night in Saffron Hall with the vibrant English Concert under Harry Bicket (more about the circumstances later).

Concert performance never hampers the Handel operas of Bicket's team, and the countertenor may well have suggested what happened here from his experience in Richard Jones's remarkable English National Opera production of Rodelinda, where the stage splits as the lovers are sundered; here, they held each other tenderly at the start, but moved away from each other for the last third of the duet. Iestyn Davies in 'Rodelinda'Even apart, Davies (pictured above with master chittaronist Sergio Bucheli; alas, Saffron Hall didn't have a photographer present, so all images are from an earlier Shanghai Concert Hall performance) and Crowe were in tune with each other: the exquisite white notes, sometimes opening out into full vibrato, the perfect taste and dramatic meaning in the way they ornamented the repeats of their da capo arias (the back-to-the-beginning format is relentlessly in operation throughout Rodelinda). Until a happy ending looms into view in Act 3, the set-piece sentiments find the characters either on the warpath or in tears. But even as some of us wondered if a fourth lament for Rodelinda in the shape of “Se ‘l mio duol“ wasn’t too much, especially when we’re assured Bertarido is safe, Crowe transcended what even she’d done before and left us prostrate in the face of her da capo elaborations.

Davies’s many stunning moments included the way Handel links recit and aria in “Dove sei”, and the limpid pastoral of “Con rauco mormorio” – though here the English Concert’s woodwind harmonies stole the show when one least expected it, in the middle sequence (not usually a place for instrumental innovation in Handel). Every inch Davies’s equal in sicilano lilt was American tenor Eric Ferring, bringing the caprices of usurper Grimoaldo to a serene outcome in his final aria, “Pastorello d’un povero armento”. The da capo here enriched the common sentiment of a shepherd’s life as preferable to a king’s with the softest fade from Ferring and Bicket’s strings as Bertarido falls asleep. Christine Rice and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in 'Rodelinda'The whole cast was unsurpassable. Christine Rice is always in a class of her own – I’ve never understood why she doesn’t have a cult following – in making every word of the recitatives tell, appearing in devil-may-care mode complete with reading glasses but inhabiting the character of the jilted Eduige down to every entry and exit, using the comedy which is permissible in the role without milking it. Young countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (pictured above with Rice) had the daunting challenge of being heard in the arias of Bertarido’s adviser Unulfo before or after those of his master, but the difference in vocal timbre sealed his success: this is a rich, almost contraltoesque sound, quite different from the limpidity at which Davies excels.

Even the bass-baritone in Rodelinda gets more than his usual time in the sun, and Brandon Cedel’s focused energy as villain Garibaldo brought another dimension to the line-up (Cedel pictured below on the right with Ferring). As for the diverse characters of the string playing, Bicket’s forces rose to stun in the contrasts of Act Two, underpinned by the thunder where necessary of champion theorboist Sergio Bucheli – always a joy to watch – lead cellist Joseph Crouch and the single double bass of Alexander Jones.

Brandon Cedel and Eric Ferring in 'Rodelinda'The icing on the cake was the involvement of Saffron Walden County High Chamber Choir in the final number. They’d obviously been told to look dead serious as they watched in Act Three, and an even greater gain might have been to sing off the score for their short contribution – I’d recently seen what a difference that made to the electrifying North Dublin Youth Choir at the Irish Embassy in London – but it was a vital element in a 10th birthday weekend for Saffron Hall which also included top-notch jazz, family story time, the London Community Gospel Choir, Jess Gillam and the Britten Sinfonia.

A final word needs to be said on that anniversary. I may not have visited this remarkable success story, an acoustic wonder born of a collaboration between a private trust and the high school, as often as I should over the last decade, but each occasion was memorable. Extraordinarily so in similarly freezing weather on another early December day in 2020, when this venue was one of the few to function, albeit with social distancing in the form of tables (you can make a day of it, incidentally, if you take a train to Audley End and walk around the estate, then in to the lovely market town for an early supper, as we did).

Thanks to sponsors’ generosity, a larger number of tables this time took the place of what would have been the stalls area. The ensuing Handel cabaret may not have been quite right for total focus on a music-drama, but those less attentive folk in the arena of Handel’s day, thronging with whores and fruit-sellers, would surely have approved. And lucky Saffron Walden to supplant London in this stop on a transatlantic tour; the next destination is Carnegie Hall, so doubly well done to an Essex glory for securing the very best.

Watch Lucy Crowe in superb 2020 studio recording of Rodelinda's 'Se'l mio duol'

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