Handel: Rodelinda

English National Opera

London Coliseum, London, 31st March 2014 4 stars

John Mark Ainsley and Susan Bickley in Rodelinda at ENOThe recent, highly successful run of Handel's Rodelinda at the English National Opera seemed to have two opposing forces at play which, nevertheless, blended into a very enjoyable experience. On one hand we had Handel's serious opera; on the other hand, the theatrical experience was not only entertaining but often comic.

Rodelinda (or, with its full title, Rodelinda, Regina de' Longobardi) is the third of three Handel operas (after Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano) which received their first performances at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket during 1724 and 1725. It is opera seria at its best; with sublime music and a plot dramatising conflicts between love and power, fidelity and betrayal, good and evil. The story-line from seventh-century Lombard history underwent some changes from Paul de Deacon's Historia Langobardorum (written between 787 and 796), through Pierre Corneille's play Pertharite, roi des Lombards (1651) and Antonio Salvi's Rodelinda, regina de' Longobardi (1710), to the libretto of Nicola Francesco Haym. However, love and fidelity triumphing over evil remains the basic essence.

In the Haym/Handel version King Bertarido, ousted from power by Grimoaldo, flees abroad leaving behind his sister Eduige, his wife Rodelinda and their son Flavio. Bertarido circulates a false report about his own death that leaves Rodelinda mourning and the usurper Grimoaldo wooing her. This leaves Eduige, keen on becoming queen on Grimoaldo's side, furious. Faced with some harsh choices, Rodelinda evidently agrees to marry Grimoaldo, which makes Bertarido, still in disguise, disappointed about Rodelinda's lack of fidelity. However, after some twists and turns, Rodelinda's steadfast fidelity becomes clear and, with the exception of the death of cruel Garibaldo, all ends well. Grimoaldo restores the throne to Bertarido, who happily re-unites with his wife Rodelinda to the joys of all.

Stage director Richard Jones does not seem to trust the plot to make a sufficient impact. He makes a significant change with the non-singing role of the child Flavio. In Jones' production he is not an innocent young child but about twenty years old and a constant (and at times cruel) participant of the action. On conclusion, he murders Grimoaldo with evident relish and sadism, yet at that point Hyam's libretto and Handel's music celebrate reconciliation, forgiveness, and the triumph of love and goodness. Presumably Jones makes the point that having grown up witnessing cruelty and deceit, Flavio becomes a monster. This may be, but it is not the Hyam/Handel conclusion.

In Handel's time, more often than not, the prime motivation for audiences to attend the opera was to hear the singers. This was particularly true in the case of Rodelinda where the cast included star singers such as the evidently great and famous Senesino. The singers were not expected to turn out great theatrical experiences; their task was to delight with their voices, vocal virtuosity and presumably musicality. They delivered the drama with their voices. However, audiences of today expect a full theatrical experience in the opera house. Richard Jones' solution to this problem is two-fold. On one hand he often allows his singers just to stand and focus on their demanding, virtuoso vocal lines while, at the same time, other protagonists in the plot do some running around the stage, miming, dancing and so on. In such scenes Jones creates stage business while not interfering with Handel's demanding vocal lines. On the other hand, more often than not, Jones adds humour--even slapstick comedy--to the drama, although there are none either in the libretto or in the music. Nevertheless, Jones' approach creates an entertaining piece of theatre. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience--well, almost: some of the stage business went over the top--but my attention to Handel's music suffered from time to time. One example was a virtuoso solo aria, during which two other distinguished singers danced a very skilful, tasteful and seductive tango: I could not take my eyes off the dancers, which relegated the superb aria into background music.

Although the work's original setting is seventh-century Lombardy, Jones and his designer team (Jeremy Herbert sets, Nicky Gillibrand costumes and Mimi Jordan Sherrin lighting) update the action to twentieth-century fascist Italy. The main set consists of a box that divides into various number of rooms throughout the opera; never less than two rooms but at times even six. There is simultaneous action in several rooms at the same time, but activity is also maintained by a lot of running from room to room. While watching all these comings and goings (including the non-singing Flavio's histrionics) it is easy to forget that Handel's entire cast consists of six singers and a non-singing child. There are people who think that Handel operas are boring. Has Richard Jones decided to disprove them?

Musically there was much to celebrate and cherish. Without exception, the cast was superb. Ironically, the only weakness (for these pair of ears) was soprano Rebecca Evan's (Rodelinda) occasional shrill notes and slightly less than clear musical diction. However, much of her delivery was beyond any criticism. Her farewell duet with countertenor Iestyn Davies (Bertarido) at the end of Act 2 was breathtaking both in terms of musical delivery and stage craft. The two of them were separated by the set dividing into two and slowly gliding into opposite directions (with Grimoaldo, ordering the separation of Rodelinda and Bertarido, left alone in the middle of the stage lonely and desolate). Davies has been much praised for his performance and rightly so. The other countertenor in the cast, Christopher Ainslie (Unulfo) is also mind blowing with his virtuosity (as well as acrobatic skills on stage). His deeper voice provided an interesting contrast to the more soprano-like quality of Davies' voice, and his musicality is second to none. One can only praise the superb artistry of tenor John Mark Ainsley (Grimoaldo), mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley (Eduige) and baritone Richard Burkhard (Garibaldo); all of them delivering every aspect of Handel's glorious music. Matt Casey (non-singing, non-speaking Flavio) did an excellent job of Richard Jones' concept, which arguably neither Haym nor Handel would have approved.

Without doubt, conductor Christian Curnyn knows his Handel. Presumably credits are due to him for making a genuine difference in the returning sections of all da capo arias throughout the performance. Nevertheless, Curnyn does have a tendency for faster (than necessary) speeds and for jovial mood when darker shades may be expected.

My final verdict? Glorious music and a cast to kill for.

By Agnes Kory

Photos: Alastiar Muir