Review – Rodelinda (English National Opera, Sunday 2 March 2014)
Bertarido – Iestyn Davies
Rodelinda – Rebecca Evans
Grimoaldo – John Mark Ainsley
Eduige – Susan Bickley
Garibaldo – Richard Burkhard
Unulfo – Christopher Ainslie
Flavio – Matt Casey (Actor)
Director – Richard Curtis
Set Designer – Jeremy Herbert
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Video Design – Steven Williams
Members of English National Opera Orchestra
Christian Curnyn (Conductor)
I think that English National Opera has a way to go before it can claim back it’s self-professed title of being the ‘House of Handel’. But Richard Jones’ production of Rodelinda has salvaged the indignity that Giulio Cesare suffered at the hands of Michael Keegan-Dolan.
However it has to be said that musically speaking, Christian Curnyn has pulled together an excellent cast for this production and displayed once again his innate sense of style and verve in terms of his interpretation of one Handel’s’ greatest operas.
Leading the cast was the excellent Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. I don’t think that I have ever heard Dove Sei? sang with such authority, musical intelligence or emotional eloquence. Pure of tone and displaying incredible vocal technique and control, he delivered one of the vocal highlights of the evening. Indeed Davies is a naturally innate Handelian in terms of performance style and coupled to his portrayal of Bertarido made his the strongest performance of the evening. His confident and flawless delivery of Vivi, tiranno provided the perfect book-end to his opening aria.
Similarly Rebecca Evans’ Rodelinda was a tour de force. Written for Francesca Cuzzoni for whom Handel also wrote Cleopatra and Lisaura (Alessandro) this is a formidable role with some incredibly challenging music right from the start. Ms Evans carried off the role with both vocal aplomb and again an innate sense of Handelian style. From the incredibly exposed Ho perduto il caro sposo and Ombre, piante, urne funeste through such coloratura-ladened arias as L’empio rigor del fato, Morai, si; l’empia tua testa and a fiery Spietati, io vi giurati Rebecca Evans demonstrated a sure-footed technique and bright, agile soprano. However it was her rendition of what is for me one of Handel’s greatest arias – Se ‘l mio duol non è si forte which was the second highlight of the evening, coupled with sensitive playing by orchestra and Curnyn finding the right colours in Handel’s delicate scoring.
But it was their Act II duet, the beautiful Io t’abbraccio which was the single highlight of the evening. Richard Jones’ simple yet devastatingly effective staging at this moment made for an almost perfect moment. ‘Almost’ but for the audience clapping before the return of the da capo sadly.
Around these two singers Curnyn had assembled an equally strong cast. John Mark Ainsley, most recently seen in L’Issipile, and Richard Burkhard as Grimoaldo and Garibaldo provided the perfect counterbalance to the hero and heroine. Grimoaldo’s Se per te giungo a godere and Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena not only displayed Ainsley’s talents and ability to manage Handel’s challenging vocal writing for the tenor voice but why he is one of the leading Baroque tenors on stage today. Burkhard similarly reveled in the music that Handel wrote for what was effectively a secondary character. I defy anyone not to be drawn in by arias such as Di Cupido imiego i vanni and Tirannia gli diede il regno when sung with such gusto by Burkhard. Christopher Ainslie demonstrated that he had the technique for Unulfo’s music but despite his smooth lucid tone, he was underpowered throughout.
And finally plaudits to Susan Bickley. Her Storgè (Jephtha) and Sidonie (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) remain two of her most memorable ENO performances for me and her Eduige has made it a tryptich. While her voice took a while to settle down she delivered a performance with both style and substance.
So why wasn’t it a return to the ‘House of Handel’?
I enjoy Richard Jones’ productions – they are smart, intelligent and often reveal interesting perspectives in terms of the characters themselves. I refer again to his Petra von Kant for ENO and before that his Love For Three Oranges as well as his Macbeth for Glyndebourne and WNO’s disturbing Wozzeck.
His Rodelinda clearly demonstrated that he had spent time with the performers. In his short interview on the ENO website he talks of Rodelinda being a “forensic” examination of people in extreme situations and it is clear that this formed the basis of creating characters who evolved during the course of the opera.
I am not sure that I agree that it was set in ‘post-war’ Italy as some have commented. To me, it smacked more of Fascist Italy with motifs such as the monument to Bertarido, the use of spy cameras, the sense of claustrophobia – heightened in the final act by smaller rooms – and the ever increasing paranoia and spying. Even the costumes were more reminiscent to me of photos that my mother showed me of her youth in Italy. Sadly the Argentinian-inspired tango didn’t quite work nor did that final image – of Bertarido’s wife and son exacting ‘la vendetta’ against their enemies. It unbalanced the sense of justice that the hero had only just magnanimously delivered
The use of tattoos however was inspired. Particularly touching was the moment when Bertarido unexpectedly revealed his own name on Unulfo’s back. Loyalty and ‘unspeakable’ love in that single moment. Although I did think that Garibaldo should have revealed a tattoo – of his own name to underline his own selfishness.
In the same interview Jones stated that Rodelinda was an opera about faithfulness and constancy, and then taking it one step further than perhaps the audience of the Eighteenth Century would have, of erotic obsession, sadism and masochism.
If that was the case then why did some moments seem to court laughter? Was the slapstick deliberate? Was it because ratcheting up the emotional intensity would be too much to ask of the audience? I have no trouble with humour if it doesn’t feel contrived. And sadly there were moments when it did.
The use of oversized swords for example was oddly juxtaposed with the image – with its contemporary associations – of Bertarido blindfolded and tied to a chair.
Or the fact that a laugh was raised when Bertarido accidentally knifes Unulfo when in fact the subtext there is that even when tested, the latter’s loyalty remains steadfast. And while I think the use of treadmills was rather smart it was slightly overdone. For instance, when during one of his arias, the audience was more impressed by Unulfo’s fancy footwork than the delivery of the music.
Handel’s operas do contain humour. Look at Agrippina, or Partenope for example. But I am not sure that Rodelinda does to the same extent.
But there’s no denying that Richard Jones can pack a punch. It wasn’t just the beauty of the music that made Io t’abraccio so poignant. It was the beautifully judged staging – literally pulling the lovers apart – that made that moment incredibly special.
Ultimately this was a Rodelinda of exceptional musicianship but out-of-kilter stagecraft.
If the ‘kinks’ can be ironed out and as long as John Berry doesn’t make the same mistake with his next Handel production as he did with Giulio Cesare, perhaps finally English National Opera can reclaim its own lost throne.