Tag Archives: Handel

Elpidia at the LHF

1 Apr

Another Handel pasticcio courtesy of Opera Settecento and the London Handel Festival. This time it’s his first, Elpidia, from 1725. I saw the concert performance at St George’s Hanover Square on 31st March.

A fortnight before, at the same venue I saw a performance by La Nuova Musica of Berenice.  I’m sorry I didn’t get round to blogging about their Berenice but, for the record, I thought it was an excellent performance, had some great music, some less great and surely his most confusing plot: I completely lost track of who was in love with whom and avenging what.

Elpidia’s plot by contrast is quite simple and if I tell you that it’s subtitle is “The Generous Rivals”, you’ll probably get the picture.  Elpidia has three suitors two of whom are noble and one of them (by far the most interesting) abducts her.  It all gets sorted out.  The libretto, by Zeno was heavily cut by either by Handel or by one of his associates to the extent that the piece veered towards the comic.  I’m not sure that worried Handel.

The purpose really was to let London hear arias by the great contemporary Italian composers who hadn’t been heard there.  On the basis that one aria about tempests, or breezes, or guinea fowl is as good as another and can be fitted more or less where you like, they selected some numbers by those composers to slot in at appropriate places.  It struck me that this performance had a similar purpose.  How many of us have heard anything by Vinci, Orlandini, Lotti or Sarri?  This was an opportunity to hear some fine music.

And there were some lovely arias among them.  If none matched Handel at his finest, none had that anonymous quality that some of his lesser arias hold.  Most of the Vinci arias are seriously lovely pieces and I was particularly impressed by the tenor aria Al mio tesoro from his Rosmira, while Orlandini provided a gorgeous alto farewell aria from his own Berenice.  If I have a complaint it was that I would (a) have welcomed a bit of contrast among the arias – there was much less bravura opportunity than you get in the Handel arias of the time and no lighter numbers.  You also don’t get a feel for any of the composers’ personalities.  The evening felt like what it was – a selection of rather good arias sewn together.

All praise to Leo Duarte who did the reconstruction of the piece and who conducted. The reconstruction must have been fascinating with some difficult choices about arias.  His conducting struck me as outstanding – considerate of his singers, bringing out the best in the music.  He got refined, well articulated, secure, confident playing from the very excellent band.  This was marvellously assured baroque playing and conducting.

The singers were strong, all on the threshold, I would say, of pretty strong careers.  Erica Eloff is obviously a favourite with the Opera Settecento management.  She sang Elpidia’s varied arias confidently and with considerable beauty.  Rupert Enticknapp as Olindo, the rival that Elpidia loves, has the more heartfelt arias of the two counter tenor roles and sang them really well.  Joe Bolger, as Ormonte, who has to make do with the seconda donna (who conveniently falls in love with him at first sight) needed a tad more power but I liked his soft-grained but very attractive voice.  Rupert Charlesworth as Vitige, the villain, insofar as there is one, seemed to me to have the finest numbers of all and sang them really convincingly and with great beauty.  Chris Jacklin as Belisario and Maria Oustroukhova as Rosmilda didn’t let the side down either but did not have the same opportunities as their colleagues.  Being hyper-critical, these arias were written for stars and what I missed was the charisma and that last ounce of bravura that, say, a Sutherland or Baker could bring.  I’m not sure that it mattered.

I can’t think of any reason to stage the piece but this was an interesting, rewarding evening.  It made me feel that I’d like to hear a full piece by Vinci and some of the others.  Are there extant versions of his Ifigenia or Rosmira? The latter, in particular, seems to have some gems of numbers in it.  Any chance of Opera Settecento having a go?  We owe a lot to that organisation and I’d strongly recommend booking for their performance of Hasse’s Demetrio at Cadogan Hall in September.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ariodante in Amsterdam

28 Jan

A visit to Amsterdam coincided with the Netherlands National Opera performing Handel’s Ariodante.  With Sarah Connolly, Sandrine Piau and Sonia Prina in the cast and a production by Richard Jones (originating in Aix in 2014), this was too good to miss.  I went to the performance on 25th January.

Ariodante is one of those great masterpieces that repays interpretation and which is open to any number of approaches.  Predictably, Richard Jones took the nastiest one possible and made you realise what a cruel work this is.  He sets it in Scottish fishing community in the 1970s.  Polinesso is the local pastor – we see him conducting a service during the overture while Ariodante and Lurcanio are the local fishermen.  It may not quite fit with the surtitles (which refer to Polinesso as the “Duke” and Ariodante as Scotland’s saviour, but the issues are the same whether it’s courtly love or the local pastor leching after the village elder’s daughter.

It’s set on a single set – a three-roomed cottage – which enables different things to happen during arias and the surround plot to be developed.  So Polinesso and Dalinda are plotting during Lurcanio’s first Act aria and you see the villagers praying over Ginevra as Ariodante returns in Act III.  For the dances, the chorus bring in puppets of Ariodante and Ginevra and promise babies and glory for them.  At the end of the second Act, Ginevra is shown as expelled from the community and becoming a prostitute in the city.  In the third, the Act I show is repeated but Ariodante is so caught up in it that he doesn’t notice Ginevra leaving of her own accord.  There is, of course, no joyous aria for Ginevra and nothing to suggest that the couple do, in fact, live happily and the depths in the arias suggest that a happy ending is unlikely.  Dalinda and Lurcanio’s reconciliation is similarly ambivalent.  It’s all acted marvellously and Jones’s trade mark, highly choreographed works ideally.  This is a thoughtful, really intelligent performance that involves you with the characters and has you sharing the emotion.

The cast was pretty good.  Sarah Connolly has deepened her interpretation of the title role since her ENO performances a decade ago.  Scherza infida was pretty much up there with Ann Murray’s unforgettable performance.  She captured the pain and the anger, acted the man engagingly, with the joy and the pain beautifully done.  She coped with some pretty brisk tempi for All’ aria di costanza and Dopo notte with fluent, impressive coloratura.

She was matched, if not exceeded, by Annett Fritsch as Ginevra.  This was some of the most outstandingly accurate, moving Handel singing that I’ve heard.  She brought a depth of despair and integrity to her Act III arias that matched Connolly’s and made Ginevra into an entirely sympathetic, believable character.  She has a gorgeous, limpid soprano that sounded ideal for this sort of music.  Both charted a range of emotions through each area so that the eventual outcome seemed entirely right.

As Polinesso, Sonia Prina caught the balance between pantomime villain and unpleasant, creepy pastor really well.  The slight harshness of her voice didn’t seem out of place here and she sang her three arias really well.  Sandrine Piau caught the daffiness of Dalinda, but also the real love and conflicting emotions of the role.  There was some really dazzlingly good Handel singing here, reminding you that this role is a cousin of Morgana in Alcina and needs similar agility and skill.

Luca Titotto as the King sang his arias cleanly, movingly and intelligently.  Only Andrew Tortise, as Lurcanio, seemed stretched beyond his limits: coloratura sounded effortful, the voice a tad small for the house.  He acted the role well.

Andrea Marcon conducted Concerto Koln.  Tempi tended to vary from the pretty brisk to the really quite slow and these contributed to a very long evening: four and quarter hours in total.  The band played with vigour and commitment.  The only serious criticism I have is one of balance which, I suspect, may be due to the acoustic of the opera house here.  The pit was raised and, while this helped you hear the orchestral textures it also tended to drown the singers.  Marcon’s continuo, particularly, seemed intrusively loud and far closer to me (in the eleventh row of the stalls) than it actually was.

The opera house struck me as a welcoming, perhaps rather large building – it seats 1600 people and is pretty wide.  I wonder what the acoustics are like for Wagner.  What was particularly impressive was the audience – informally dressed and containing a remarkably high number of people in the 16 – 22 age group that you hardly ever see in London.  They stayed to the end and appeared enthusiastic.  Aside from an outstanding performance of the opera, that committed, diverse, youthful and unstuffy audience was an additional bonus to a gem of an evening.  It’s a shame Jones’s production doesn’t look as though it’s coming here any time soon.

Spoiler Alert – Don’t read if you’re going to see Saul

18 Aug

I’m sorry.  I don’t see how I can write about the performance of Saul that I saw at Glyndebourne on 17th August without describing what I saw.  And half of the joy of it was the sheer exuberance and unexpectedness of the production.  If you’re going to see it or wanting to (and I recommend that you try to snap up whatever returns come up) or seeing it on the Tour, wait until you’ve seen it before reading below.

For those of you who don’t know the piece (and I’d heard it a couple of times on CD only), it begins after David has slain Goliath.  Saul is initially delighted and offers him the hand of his daughter Merab, who is not happy at the prospect.  But when it looks as though David may be more popular than him, Saul turns jealous and demands that his son, Jonathan, kill David.  Jonathan won’t kill his best friend.  Saul appears to relent and offers David the hand of his second daughter, Michal instead – that’s fine, they love each other.  In fact, he’s hoping that David will be killed by the Philistines.  That doesn’t happen and, maddened, he goes to the Witch of Endor who prophesies that Saul and Jonathan will be killed in battle and that David will become king of the Israelites.  That happens and the piece ends with mourning and the coronation of David.  In terms of twists and turns the plot isn’t that unlike many of Handel’s Italian operas.  What is different is the huge role for the chorus, the variety of different types of aria and the sheer lushness of the orchestration.

The first thing that becomes visible in Barry Kosky’s production is the head of Goliath.  Then you see David, exhausted, overwhelmed by what he has done and then, for the opening chorus, you see a vast table, filled with food and elaborately costumed courtiers with Saul at its centre and Abner its  court jester. It looks like a painted late Stuart cornucopia – and, with David in a modern suit, gently makes the political point of an out of date court.  The choreography is witty; the court is caricatured, Merab an ugly sister figure hating the prospect of washing David’s feet as the rest of the court fights to clean his battle-stained body.  Only David and Jonathan appear normal.  Then Saul’s decline begins and Christopher Purves portrays the unhinged king with utter conviction, stumbling round the stage, muttering, shouting, adding bits to the text, slowly disintegrating.  I remember his look of despair to the audience at the end of the first half (the break is about half way through Handel’s second part) and, during the Envy chorus, hands run over his face – an extraordinary depiction of the emotions going through it.

At the start of the second part, the tables have gone and all that you see is a stage filled with flickering candles.  Then, during the sinfonia, the chamber organ rises from the trap door and revolves, at quite a speed, while James McVinnie plays the solo quite extraordinarily.  It’s one of those of astonishing, virtuoso, baroque moments in the production, reminding you of an old cinema organ that played during the intermission, leaving you open-mouthed at the sheer exuberance of it all.

Things get nastier as the evening goes on.  Clothes come off and the scene with the witch is extraordinary – she comes out, bearded, just like Saul.  The witch has huge dugs from which Saul suckles to get the spirit of Samuel and the two of them walk off, in despair, like Lear and Gloucester.  The dead march is simply a picture of the dead Israelites on the battlefield with the heads of Saul and Jonathan.  David and Michal pour soil over them.  At the end David walks slowly downstage dressed as Saul was at the beginning, an outsider to the celebrations.

There are wonderful images – David and Jonathan, back to back, hands entwined. David cradling Saul, the sheer intimacy and intensity of the pictures.  It is astonishingly choreographed, every move and picture clear and certain.  You had the sense of every single person on the stage being absolutely of one mind and completely committed.  The energy was palpable and communicated directly to the audience.  After a Castor and Pollux that I simply didn’t get, this made me understand what the fuss about Kosky is about.  And it probably helped that he had the resources of Glyndebourne to get him there.

Then there was the outstanding musical performance.  Ivor Bolton is a specialist in this area and seemed entirely at one with the production.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on the same wonderful form that it was for Entfuhrung playing with passion and complete certainty.  I don’t think that Handel’s pure orchestral music has made as much sense to me before. or that I’ve admired the sheer intricacy of his sinfonias.

I’ve mentioned Christopher Purves.  It’s hard to imagine this performance without him (though Henry Waddington has been doing the role at some performances).  Maybe you could imagine the role more perfectly sung but against that there is the sheer intensity that he provides – his mutterings, wanderings and those looks, directly to the audience, where you can see the obsession and madness coming straight at you.

The rest of the cast was superb too.  Iestyn Davies was David and seems to be absolutely in his prime as a Handel counter tenor.  This was good as David Daniels in that first run of Theodora here.  The sheer beauty and firmness of tone, together with the virtuosity of his singing gave constant pleasure.  He acted the role really strongly, catching the integrity but also the sense of him being the outsider.

Paul Appleby made an excellent Jonathan, sincere, pleasing singing and obviously a very promising tenor who I’d very much like to hear in Mozart.  Sophie Bevan was a flashy Merab who managed her change of heart later on really well.  Lucy Crowe was also splendid as Michal.  Benjamin Hulett gave a virtuoso acting performance amalgamating a number of smaller roles into this court jester/chorus figure – sinister, satyr-like and eminently watchable.  He sang very well too – he’s promoted to Jonathan on the Tour which should be worth hearing.  As the witch, John Graham-Hall gave one of the outstanding cameos that you expect from him and made an impression completely out of proportion the size of the part.  It’s one of the great scenes in the piece and he and Purves made it horribly unforgettable – the intimacy of their embrace and staggering off together was mesmerising.

But the real star was the chorus.  It has a huge amount of work to do.  The music isn’t easy but they made it sound so – singing accurately, with perfect ensemble and great diction.  And they were running around, dancing, communicating directly to the audience.  They gave a complete virtuoso performance and, I would guess, had a marvellous time.

One half cavil and one question.  After three shows the summer which appeared to involve vast quantities of mock mud, perhaps it’s time for directors to give this particular trope a rest.  Secondly, I wonder how this will work on the Tour and in subsequent revivals.  This felt like one of those evenings that came as a result of a particular chemistry between director, cast and chorus.  How will it survive cast changes?  Will the incredible visual images all survive to the Tour?

So this was one of those exuberant, off-the-wall evenings that, every now and then, Glyndebourne brings off better than anyone else – in the tradition of the Kent Fairy Queen and Sellars Theodora.  It worked spectacularly well and the audience was caught up and hugely enthusiastic at the end.  After a series of interesting rather than great productions, it’s great to see Glyndebourne hit the jack-pot twice in a row with this and McVicar’s less exuberant, but equally polished and assured Entfuhrung.  It’s a great evening.  It’s now pretty much sold out for the Festival, but I’d strongly recommend trying to get a return and maybe they’ll get a similar magic on the tour.

Interchangeable Handel

24 Mar

Third pasticcio of the year and, so far as I know, the last. This was Handel’s Giove in Argo, which I saw on 23rd March as part of the London Handel Festival at the Britten Theatre. It proved to be a hugely enjoyable evening.

I will confess that I’ve sat through a few Handel operas and had the insidious thought, when some of the less inspired numbers come across, that here is yet another generic second soprano/villain/heroic aria and that there is no particular reason why it has to be in this opera, rather than any other. Giove in Argo takes this further. Handel took a libretto and inserted a series of arias from previous works, a few original ones and a couple brought in by one of his prima donnas from an opera by Araja.  It rather proved my theory.  One Handel aria can very frequently be put into an entirely different opera and situation and work perfectly well .

The opera didn’t please much in 1739 and there was no full score. The version we saw was reconstructed by John H Roberts.  It proved to be an enjoyable curiosity. I don’t usually have problems following the plots of Handel operas – provided you keep alert and watch the surtitles it’s usually fairly easy to work out who’s who, who they’re in love with/loved by and why they’re in disguise. This one was much more difficult, partly because I think that this performance cut a fair amount of recitative and some of the musical numbers. It wasn’t until the middle of the second Act that I really felt that that I’d sorted everyone out. The plot feels like a variant on Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It – Jupiter is haunting a wood where various kings and princesses are in hiding and making love to the princesses. This causes problems when one of the princess’s husband arrives and when the other, Calisto, decides to become a votaress of Diana. You get the typical tropes of people going mad, being misunderstood by their husbands and generally getting into messes that are sorted out remarkably easily at the end. It works and is interesting because the music is so fine.

The arias were great.  Two of them were from Alcina, one being Tornami a vagheggiar, which is always a joy to hear. I recognised one of the others from somewhere or other but the others were unfamiliar. It was great to hear a series of really fabulous arias, all experessing more or less the right emotions. I don’t think there was a single dud. The other fascinating thing was the role of the chorus. There are eight of them and, again, some really gorgeous ones to finish the acts. That at the end of the second Act struck me as particularly fine. As an opera it doesn’t have the genius of Alcina, Giulio Cesare or his other greats, but I couldn’t help feeling that, overall, the musical quality was a bit higher than for some of his others. And that raises all kinds of thoughts about opera and art generally.

Musically, the performance wasn’t bad. As ever, it’s done in conjunction with the Royal College of Music with students singing the roles. It was safe in the hands of Laurence Cummings. He’s a super conductor of this repertory. The music sounded secure, stylish and absolutely right. The London Handel Orchestra was in good form.

None of the singers let the side down, though all were stretched at times. Sofia Larsson had the task of singing, not just Tornami a Vagheggiar but about half a dozen other arias as well. She did them valiantly and, at times, movingly, despite a slight thinness of tone. Angela Simkin as Iside struck me as very special indeed – a series of fabulous arias, including a mad scene, dealt with really well. Rose Setten made a cold, implacable Diana. Peter Aisher’s pleasant tenor sounded stretched by Jupiter’s music and Nicholas Morton made a pretty good Erasto – I particularly enjoyed his singing of his last, reflective aria and felt that there were the makings of a very good lieder singer there. Matthew Buswell as Licaone had one aria at the beginning and some recitative at the end. He actually sounded rather good and I’m assuming that at least one aria may have been cut which was a shame for him.

James Bonas directed and turned this into a dark, rather nasty story, which it is. His direction of the characters was strong, particularly as the story got nastier. The set was economical but allowed some nice effects. My one complaint was that the lighting was resolutely dim and stopped you seeing faces at times.

So it was an enjoyable curiosity for Handelians and was a great opportunity to see one of the outliers. I don’t think it’ll get a toe-hold in the repertory, any more than it did in 1739 butt I’m glad I’ve seen it and I’d recommend a visit.

Exhuming Handel as Editor

18 Mar

Yet more archeology. Opera Settecento presented “Handel”s Catone in Utica” at St George’s Hanover Square on 17th March claiming it as a modern premiere – certainly the first performance since 1732. It’s not really by Handel – edited by Handel certainly – but there’s barely a note by him in the original.

Handel frequently included pasticcios in his London seasons as a way of introducing London to arias by other European composers. Here, he took a libretto by Metastasio which had been set by a couple of composers, most recently the Venetian, Leo. He cut the recitative and replaced a number of Leo’s arias with ones by Hasse, Porpora, Vinci and Vivaldi, selected to suit the individual singers and, possibly, the situation. Unlike the Vivaldi, L’oracolo in Messenia the other week, we can be pretty sure that this was, more or less, what Handel’s audiences heard.

The piece is about Cato committing suicide rather than recognise Caesar as emperor and a love triangle whereby his daughter Marzia is betrothed to his ally, Arbace, but is in love with Cesare. Pompey’s wife Emilia also appears – not quite sure why. It moves reasonably swiftly and provides a neat enough showcase for some interesting arias. Stylistically they are all very different and there isn’t much unity about them but they are all grateful and of a very high quality. It’s hard to feel much interest in the characters or their problems and the performance didn’t really help this.

All of these arias were written for virtuoso singers at the height of their powers. Here we had mostly young singers working with enthusiasm and talent and generally getting by. They were here for the arias and I very much wondered how much work the recitative had had – I wasn’t sure how many of them understood or cared about what they understood what they were singing; it all moved slowly, undramatically.

The best impressions were made by Emilie Renaud as the second role of Arbace and by Christopher Jacklin as Cesare. Both appeared to understand what they were singing, enjoyed communicating it and sang very well. Renaud’s arias may be less flashy but she sang them with a rich, communicative, sincerity. Jacklin’s required some pretty fiendish coloratura and he did a remarkably fine job of them.

As Marzia, Erica Eloff seemed rather cool but sang stylishly – particularly the fiendish final aria from Vinci’s Artaserse. Christina Gansch was rather anonymous as Emilia.

Catone was meant to be sung by Andrew Watts, but he was ill. In the circumstances we have to be grateful to Christopher Robson for stepping in at short notice to undertake what must have been entirely unfamiliar music. I’ll leave it at that.

Tom Foster conducted fluidly and keeping the show moving. He struck me as having a real feel for this sort of music and his orchestra played pretty well for him.

I wouldn’t rush back to see this piece again but I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to experience it and I may well search out some CDs of the arias.

Surprisingly enjoyable Rinaldo

10 Aug

It’s funny how shows which I didn’t like much first time round can seem better at the revival.  Glyndebourne’s decision to cast all the castrato roles in Rinaldo with counter tenors and Iestyn Davies in the title role was enough to make me decide to go, despite the fact that I’d really disliked Robert Carsen’s production when it was new in 2011.  At the first night of this revival, very capably rehearsed by Bruno Ravella, on 9th August, with no expectations of enjoyment, it didn’t seem so bad and I even found myself moderately enjoying it.

Rinaldo is an opera about spectacle.  It doesn’t have the same depth of emotion as Handel’s later operas, despite having some of his finest arias.  Most of those, in fact, were recycled (nothing particularly wrong with that, when they are so good) and you sense a plot built around them and around opportunities for dragons, furies, sirens and spectacular sets.  I can sort of see why Robert Carsen liked the idea of it as a schoolboy’s fantasy about the crusades.  And, on its own terms, it’s slick, witty and has some good moments – Rinaldo flying on a bicycle on his rescue mission and the Magus’s mad chemistry laboratory and a very funny football match.  I still think that the opera needs more colour – it looks all a bit beige and cheap.  Perhaps it suffered from being new in the same season that they did Meistersinger.  But, perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I found myself enjoying myself without the irritation that I remembered from the first time round.

Perhaps the new cast helped.  Iestyn Davies is on fabulous form at the moment and his performance of Rinaldo was even better than his Bertarido at ENO – singing Venti Turbini from a bike high above the stage can be no fun, but he managed it was aplomb and real excitement.  He was moving in the previous aria lamenting the absence of Almirena and throughout sang with passion, style and fervour.  I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one buying his latest CD of Handel oratorio arias (it’s excellent).  I very much enjoyed his slightly bemused heroism.  It’s great that he’ll be back here for Saul next year.

The difference in timbres and types of counter tenors was strongly on display here.  Tim Mead was in excellent voice as Goffredo – a strong, virile sound that suggested that he wouldn’t make a bad Rinaldo himself.  Anthony Roth Costanza has a much lighter voice, not unsuitable for Eustazio and sang his arias well.  James Laing was splendid as the Magus.  With singing of this sort, I wonder how far we need to have mezzos in these roles any more.  Mind you, I wouldn’t mind hearing Sarah Connolly do Rinaldo, either…

The women were good too.  Karina Gauven was a fiery, vicious Armida who did her aria at the end of Act II splendidly and was properly villainous.  Christina Landshamer was an attractive Almirena who did her Act II aria, Lascia que piange, really beautifully.  I’m really not sure that giving her pigtails and glasses helps the character or anything else, really.  Joshua Hopkins showed you why singers such as Finley and Pisaroni have been cast as Argante – there are some really splendid arias, far above the quality of most of Handel’s bass arias, and he sang them really well, entering nicely into the production.  I think we’ll be hearing quite a lot more of him.

So there wasn’t a weak link in the cast, Ottavio Dantone’s conducting was vigorous, fleet and stylish and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on excellent form.  Musically alone this was an evening of huge pleasure and one felt a certain indulgence towards the production.  If you’re a fan of really good Handel singing, it’s well worth trying to get hold of a ticket.

 

 

 

 

 

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.