Handel: Rodelinda
English National Opera
The Coliseum. 26 October 2017

I avoid checking back on my past reviews before going to an opera revival, but will sometimes do so after the event to see if my views have changed. In the case of this revival of Richard Jones’ production of Handel’s Rodelinda, they haven’t. A very popular production at the time, and gaining enthusiastic applause from the opening night of the revival, this left me less than inspired, with a few specific exceptions.

To start with the positive exceptions, I cannot praise the ENO orchestra high enough for their absorption of period style in recent years, despite remaining a modern instrument band. It has been a long road, aided by the influence of a series of inspirational conductors, the most recent being the excellent Christian Curnyn (who also conducted the first run in 2014). He is the current ENO go-to conductor for Handel, succeeding Laurence Cummings who did so much to start the ENO period performance revival. The orchestra played with stylistic conviction, and Christian Curnyn continued to confirm his reputation as a leading interpreter of Handel – his control of the pacing was exemplary.

The loss of Iestyn Davies (Bertarido) and John Mark Ainsley (Grimoaldo ) from the 2014 cast was noticeable. Although Tim Mead’s Bertarido was impressive, both in his vocal power and his acting ability, his voice didn’t quite match the sensuous quality of Davies in the more reflective moments. But he was the only singer who really showed an absorption of period style, notably in his clear diction and ability (not always used) to hold a stable note without wobbling.  The latter was an issue with many of the other singers, resulting in a poor diction and, in some cases, a less than assured grasp of the notes which were often slithered around rather than landed on with confidence. Juan Sancho replaced John Mark Ainsley, as Grimoaldo, also not quite grasping the depth of the possible characterisation, while counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey replaced Christopher Ainslie as Grimoaldo’s unfortunate and increasingly blood-soaked advisor, Unulfo. Neal Davies played-up the villainy of Gariboldo. The female singers were too operatically wobbly for my taste.

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I remain unconvinced by the production and staging, with its ever-increasing number of rooms (Ayckbourn-style) with far too many doors to bang and places to run to and from. When the vocal action was centred on one part of the stage enclosures, there was nearly always something complicated and distracting going on somewhere else. From historical accounts, attending a Handel opera in Handel’s day must have been a pretty unsatisfactory experience for a music, rather than spectacle, lover, but it seems that at least the soloists generally just stood and sang, without too much going on around them. Richard Jones is one of those directors that just doesn’t let the audience watch and listen to an aria without being battered with all sorts of other sensations and images at the same time. Several sections started off on stage before transferring to the narrow front stage (while a scene change went on behind a drop with three doors), where the ENO props department had thoughtfully provided three treadmills. Tim Mead was the only singer who managed to sing while walking on the moving treadmill in time to the music: most of the others looked as though they were going to fall off at any minute. On other occasions, a singer would disappear through one of the many doors mid-aria, only to pop-up somewhere else on the set.

For what is supposed to be opera seria, with a bloodthirsty and violent plot, the slapstick-induced audience laughter seemed out of place. I recall the same feeling at the first run, particularly in scenes such as the attempts of Grimoaldo to hack Bertarido to bits with weapons of ever-increasing size, to the accompaniment of audience laughter. Similarly when Bertarido mistakenly half-kills Unulfo hiding behind a door – again all done to audience laughs.

One of the most curious departures from Handel was having the mute role of Flavio (the son and heir of Rodelinda and Bertarido) played by a twenty-something young man who, after some comedy turns, became increasingly monstrous. Flavio is supposed to be a pre-pubescent boy, caught up in the machinations of the surrounding adults. Quite apart from ignoring plot questions of Lombardic succession if Flavio is an adult (Eduige would no longer have a claim to the throne), the key scene when Rodelinda urges Grimoaldo (her husband Bertarido’s usurper) to kill her son takes on a completely different mood when the intended victim is a rather obnoxious young man (here revealed strapped to the bottom of a lift-up bed), rather than an innocent child. When I saw the first 2014 performance, I was reminded of an excellent production of Rodelinda at Iford Opera in 2011, with Christian Curnyn and his own Early Opera Company, when a local lad took the role Flavio.

Rodelinda runs at the Coliseum until 15 November. A gallery of ENO production photographs can be seen here.

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