RODRIGO, or Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria (to overcome oneself is the greater victory) (HWV 5)
Libretto: Francesco Silvani
First performance: November 1707 (date unknown), Teatro Cocomero, Florence
- Stefano Frilli (Soprano castrato)
- Anna Maria Cecchi (Soprano)
- Aurelia Marcello (Soprano)
- Francesco Guicciardi (Tenor)
- Caterina Azzolini (Soprano)
- Giuseppe Perini (Alto castrato)
In the palace garden Florinda furiously upbraids Rodrigo for seducing her and giving her a child, then failing to honour his promises of marriage and the crown. Rodrigo is preoccupied with news of his army’s victory over Evanco and Sisibuto, princes of Aragon, and advises Florinda to forget her ambitions and content herself with the memory of past pleasures. Alone, she vows revenge.
In the throne room Fernando asks Rodrigo’s wife Esilena why she does not join in the general rejoicing. She replies that she cannot be happy when she has lost Rodrigo’s love, but Fernando predicts that he will return to her. Rodrigo announces his victory, and Esilena tells him that a more worthy triumph would be over his own conduct. Together they greet the victorious general Giuliano, who returns from war with Evanco in chains and the severed head of Sisibuto as trophy. Evanco proudly defies Rodrigo and is sentenced to death, but Esilena successfully pleads for his life. Rodrigo places the prisoner in Giuliano’s charge.
Giuliano recognises Evanco’s nobility of spirit and offers him, insofar as his duty to Rodrigo allows it, the hand of friendship. As Evanco is led away Giuliano’s thoughts turn to his beloved sister Florinda. But she confeses that in his absence she has brought dishonour on herself and their family by a liaison with Rodrigo. Outraged at Rodrigo’s perfidy Giuliano vows to free Evanco, declare him the rightful king of Spain and fight with him to destory Rodrigo. Florinda hopes that her offence may be expiated by Rodrigo’s death.
In his private chamber Rodrigo feels his latest triumphs hang heavy upon him. Fernando and Esilena rush in to inform him of the uprising; the rebel forces, led by Giuliano, Evanco and Florinda, are gathering outside ths city. Rodrigo sends Fernando to rally the loyal troops then admits to Esilena that his adulterous intrigue with Florinda, and the promises that he made to her, are the cause of the rebellion. Esilena offers to surrender to Florinda her place as Rodrigo’s consort in order to save his reputation and avert bloodshed, but Rodrigo protests, allowing her, however, to visit Florinda in the rebel camp to negotiate peace. Alone, Esilena decides to pursue her selfless offer and prove herself a glorious model of fidelity to Spanish wives.
In the rebel camp Giuliano and Evanco rally their troops against Rodrigo. A soldier brings Esilena’s request for an audience with Florinda, and another bears a separate message for Giuliano from Fernando suggesting a secret meeting. Evanco and Florinda fear a trap, but Giuliano trusts to Fernando’s nobility and friendship. Evanco confesses his love for Florinda and asks for her hand; she replies that she will be worthy of him only once she is avenged. Esilena is brought forward for a parley with Florinda. She offers Florinda her husband and the throne but Florinda declares that she now wants Rodrigo’s heart only if it is torn from his breast. Furious at Florinda’s implacable greed for revenge Esilena returns to the city. Florinda steels her resolve and dismisses from her heart any lingering affection for Rodrigo.
Alone at night, Rodrigo attempts to revive his flagging spirits. Esilena reports that the city is under siege and that her mission has been unsuccessful. Rodrigo remains confident of victory, but Esilena vows that if he is to die she will die with him. Meanwhile Fernando’s plan has worked and he enters with Giuliano in chains. Giuliano rages at Rodrigo and swears that he will confront him in hell. Once again Esilena intervenes with a plea for mercy; Giuliano’s death would only add fuel to the rebel cause. Fernando suggests that Giuliano be used as hostage and Rodrigo sends him to demand, at the price of Giuliano’s life, that the rebel forces lay down their arms. Esilena and Rodrigo, believing victory to be within their grasp, express their love for one another. Rodrigo leaves Esilena to muse on her new-found happiness.
In the camp below the city walls Florinda and Evanco encourage their followers to fight to save Giuliano. The gate is opened, revealing Giuliano in chains. Fernando presents Rodrigo’s ultimatum, but Giuliano urges Florinda and Evanco not to abandon their cause for his sake. As Florinda wavers, Evanco impetuously shoots Fernando dead. Giuliano is freed and the rebels surge forward into the city.
Rodrigo has retreated to the temple of Jove and curses the gods for his defeat. Elisa urges him to reject such impious thoughts and continue the fight. Placing his crown and sceptre on the altar, Rodrigo submits to his fate, asking the gods to spare the kingdom and Esilena. Esilena offers her life as sacrifice if it will save Rodrigo.
In a courtyard of the burning palace Giuliano celebrates his army’s victory and instructs his troops to track down and kill Rodrigo. Rodrigo is captured by Evanco, and both he and Giuliano prepare to despatch him, but Florinda claims that privilege. But as she prepares to plunge her sword into Rodrigo’s breast Esilena suddenly appears with Florinda’s child, and giving Rodrigo the boy to hold she dares Florinda to strike the blow that will kill both father and son. Florinda’s maternal instinct triumphs; she drops her sword and pardons Rodrigo. Esilena turns her pleas to Giuliano and Evanco, asking them to spare Rodrigo’s life as, through her prayers, he had spared theirs. Giuliano agrees, and Florinda adds her entreaty to Evanco: by showing compassion he will prove himself more worthy of her love. Evanco pardons his enemy and Rodrigo requests the right to address the country’s leaders one more time as king. Alone with Esilena Rodrigo begs – and receives – her final forgiveness.
In the throne room Florinda and Evanco rejoice in their love. Rodrigo formally announces his abdication and retirement with Esilena, restoring the kingdom of Aragon to Evanco, with Florinda as his queen, and making his and Florinda’s son the heir to Castile with Giuliano as regent during his minority. Esilena declares that the greatest triumph lies in self conquest, and leads a final chorus praising the victory of love over revenge.
Handel left Hamburg for Italy in August 1706 at the age of 21, and was to spend more than three years travelling between the cities of Florence, Rome and Venice. This period was to make an indelible impression on his musical style, knowledge and inspiration. Through attending performances, playing alongside Italian musicians, and encountering Italian composers and their works Handel was to become thoroughly acquainted with the nature of Italian music. It was the combination of his Germanic roots with this Italian influence that was to define his personal musical voice.
Rodrigo was an instant success. Handel’s first biographer, John Mainwaring, was to note that Handel ‘was presented with 100 sequins, and a service of plate. This may serve for a sufficient testimony of its favourable reception’. It is also to Mainwaring’s account of the first production of Rodrigo that we owe our only glimpse of Handel’s private life. According to Mainwaring, Handel had a brief love affair with the prima donna Vittoria Tarquini, although as she did not appear in the cast of Rodrigo some believe that this is unsubstantiated gossip. There is however another possible source for the story. Three years later, in June 1710 just after Handel had been appointed Kappelmeister to the court in Hanover, the Electress Sophia of Hanover wrote to a friend that Handel ‘…is a fine-looking man, and rumour has it that he was the lover of Victoria’.