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Riches Rediscovered:  Handel's 'Rodelinda'

In today's world, with pop music from the past century or so available to us at the click of a mouse, it's hard to imagine the hit tunes of a globally popular musical act simply disappearing from the public eye, as though they had never existed.

Look at The Beatles, for example.  Let's say that after they officially broke up, in 1970, all but a few of their songs and albums were basically forgotten -- that Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road never even made it to CD, much less onto your MP3 player.  And that all that music remains obscure, at best, until someone dusts off a few worn LPs early in the 22nd century, and it all regains its hit status.  It's an impossible scenario, right?  It could never have happened.  But it did happen -- not to The Beatles, of course, but to one of the greatest and most popular composers of all time.

George Frideric Handel was a truly cosmopolitan musician, whose work became an international sensation in the 1700s.  Born in Germany, he had his greatest success in London, writing Italian opera.  During the 1720s and '30s, the incredible string of operatic hits he wrote for the city's theaters made him one of Europe's most successful composers.  And when London's audiences tired of Italian opera, he maintained his popularity with English oratorios and orchestral music.  But after he died, in 1759, everything started to change.

For nearly 150 years after Handel's death, all but a small number of his works fell into obscurity.  Some of his orchestral pieces stayed popular in the concert halls, along with a few oratorios, such as "Messiah."  But most of his music, including virtually all of his 40-plus operas, were virtually ignored until a long-overdue Handel revival early in the 20th century.

Fortunately for today's audiences, Handel's dry spell is now long over.  Still, he composed so much great music that his works are still being mined for neglected gems -- and his operas may be the richest territory of all.  A relative few of them, including Ariodante, Rinaldo and Julius Caesar, now see the stage with some regularity.  But there are many more that still qualify as hits waiting to happen.  One is featured here this week.  It's called Rodelinda -- a powerful drama filled with so many great numbers that it could almost fill a classical Top 40 chart by itself.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Rodelinda, Handel's one-opera hit parade, from the Valle d'Itria Festival in Martina Franca, near the Adriatic coast in the south of Italy.  The opera features a number of powerful and compelling characters, and the production follows suit with several standout performances.  Top billing goes to mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi as the steadfast wife Rodelinda, and to the brilliant countertenor Franco Fagioli as her troubled husband, Bertarido.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.