Rodelinda passes the last train test

1 Mar

I’ve mentioned my “last train test” before.  My last train home from London is horrible (well, the people on it usually are) and arrives so that I’m lucky if I’m in bed by 2 am.  In order to get the train before, the opera has to finish by 10.25  – often quite tight. As I get older, shows have to be pretty special for me to stay beyond that hour (and thank goodness for internet booking enabling me to choose seats at the end of a row).  The ENO’s new Rodelinda on 28th February emphatically passed that test and had me ruminating on the opera and the production all the long way home.  Mind you, it shouldn’t have needed to – as seems to be an occupational hazard of ENO first nights the performance started late and intervals dragged on as the criterati rabbited on and seemed unwilling to take their seats.  Had I gone to a later performance I might just have made that earlier train.

Anyway, to the opera.  One of the joys of the Handel revival is that the operas are performed often enough for you to see the links and contrasts between them.  Jonathan Keates’s article in the programme reminded me that this sits with Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano in his output and, having seen all of those at least once in the last five years and listened to them, it’s interesting to plot the similarities and contrasts in structure and plot.  I admire all three hugely and, particularly in Cesare and Rodelinda, the way in which Handel marries wit and comedy with the violent.  In all three, he shows a dangerous world and how people cope with it.  If Cesare is the lightest of the three, Rodelinda strikes me as the most personal and heartfelt.  It also has the weakest plot – the comings and goings seem lengthy and implausible and are a test for directors.

I saw the last major production here (Villegier at Glyndebourne) on each of its outings and it was fascinating to compare it with Richard Jones’s approach here.  There are similarities.  Both had a strong visual setting – Villegier in a 1920s, Mussolini-ish silent film road; Jones in a more realistic totalitarian state, full of surveillance cameras, vicious implements of torture and huge monuments.  Both are stylised and well choreographed – catching the arch, almost camp (not meant derogatively here) air that seems to be an essential part of Handel performance (at least for operas of this time – I’m not convinced you need it for, say, Ariodante).  Both play the early part of the third act for laughs and have lots of business going on during some of the arias.  Where Jones differs and, for me, improves is that he catches the raw emotion and the danger of the opera far, far more than Villegier’s very comfortable never-never-land.  .  He creates a world where Grimoaldo has a hidden camera behind Rodelinda’s mirror so that he can letch over her and where there is a very convincing tyranny indeed.  He seizes on the reality of the threats of death by Grimoaldo and Garibaldo and works out how these affect the characters: instead of the happy ending, you see Unulfo badly wounded and ignored by the rest of the cast and Flavio murdering Grimoaldo watched on video by the exultant Rodelinda. Far from the usual little boy, Flavio is a late teenager and was given a great deal to do – reminding me of the Cornelia/Sesto relationship in Cesare.

Doubts?  Maybe there is a bit too much going on in some arias so that you miss out on the singing – but this certainly doesn’t affect the great serious arias as the show goes on.  More seriously, there is a contrast in the opera between the pastoral and the city – between peace and politics – that Jones’s relentlessly urban setting misses.  This is important for two arias: Bertarido’s marvellous second act aria where the recorders and wind writing create a glorious picture of streams, hills and meadows that having him sat in a smart bar simply does not capture – and it jars – and for Grimoaldo’s final aria – there’s a link there which Jones ignores.  However, these doubts pale beside the sheer inventiveness and clarity of the staging.  For me, it’s a staging of a Handel opera to set beside David Alden’s of Ariodante and Hytner’s Xerxes here as one of the very finest productions of a Handel opera (as opposed to oratorio) that I’ve seen.  It delights and disturbs in equal measure.

I’ve written a lot about Jones’s production, but this was one of those evenings where the musical vision was entirely at one with it and where the singers acted and sang the music so that the emotions felt absolutely true and convinced you that Handel is second to none in creating convincing characters and describing their emotions truly through music.  Christian Curmyn needs to take the credit for a lot of this.  His tempi struck me as a bit on the slow side but this went so completely with the vision of the work that they felt right – he had the orchestra playing stylishly and sympathetically.  I found myself smiling at the witty, joyous arias and following the more serious, heartfelt pieces with baited breath.  The one thing that I missed was the last ounce of bravura and sheer showiness that one or two of the arias call for.

There was some really fine singing that, again, was all at one with the vision.  Rebecca Evans was an almost completely successful Rodelinda.  She conveyed the grief, the anger and the love of the woman and she sang her Act II aria before the return of Bertarido so beautifully and movingly that we didn’t applaud after it.  There were odd moments where I wondered whether she was having some problems – she wasn’t always audible and some lines seemed a bit broken, but that may have been to do with the not-too brilliant acoustics towards the back of the Dress Circle at the Coliseum.  But for most of it, this was assured, daring Handel singing that created a complete character.  She was partnered by Iestyn Davies as Bertarido.  He’s marvellous in the reflective passages and my only complaint is that he can’t quite get the sheer bravura for the last aria – Vivi tiranno – he does it well but there is just a sense of carefulness about it when you want complete abandonment and joy in surmounting this fearsome aria.  This is being hypercritical.  He, Evans and Jones gave me one of the most unforgettable operatic experiences in a long time when they sang their duet at the end of Act II.  It’s one of Handel’s most wonderful creations and they caught the differing emotions, the sheer regret, anger and sadness to perfection as the set inexorably pulled them apart.  That alone made the visit worthwhile and the audience was hanging onto every note.

John Mark Ainsley created a nasty, weak, seedy Grimoaldo and sang his arias predictably marvellously.  Susan Bickley was a lovely, alert Eduige, singing her arias marvellously.  Christopher Ainslie made a really good job of Unulfo: his arias are among the most attractive and optimistic in the piece and they were engagingly staged and joyously sung  – I found myself smiling throughout.  I’m not sure that Richard Burkhard’s future is really in Handel and he sounded tested by the arias but he’s one of our most engaging singing actors and he was an alert, threatening presence.  I think that Matt Casey deserves a mention as well for a very strong, convincing silent performance of Flavio, turned into a key additional character.

Diction was excellent and Amanda Holden’s translation was pretty good – strong, clear and knowing with a wit about it, even though you sensed that some of the note values had been played about this in the recitatives.

I found this a fascinating and very strong evening: not a teacup in sight and the only use of Champagne is decidedly threatening – the normal tropes of Handel staging have gone and in their place was vivid, truthful disturbing evening that I can’t recommend too strongly.  I hope it comes back and I hope that ENO have booked Jones to do a Tamerlano for them.  And stay to the end.



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