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Tuesday 1 April 2014

Rodelinda at ENO


I am so pleased to have caught the last night performance of this production - it was a truly wondrous experience on all levels, one of those cherished operatic evenings which make all the bad and merely decent evenings worthwhile.

My admiration of Handel has been hard fought for and it has required keeping an open mind over a number years to become attuned to the particular pleasures that his oeuvre affords. In my teens his music seemed pale and shallow next to Bach's, then when opera became the big focus for me, I found the slow dramatic pacing to be a huge impediment to enjoyment. After my narrow adolescent tastes for complexity and lushness were transcended, I discovered that simplicity is the key for this composer and though he can't surprise like Bach, he charms and moves in different ways. He is one of the supreme melodists, always finding a freshness within his superficially predictable means; the action tends to be very narrowly focused on extraordinarily intense psychology and human emotion; his ear for sonority is immaculate - I now understand why Elgar said he was the greatest orchestrator, even if it seems like hyperbole to make a point. Along with Alcina and Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda represents for me the high water mark of Handel's middle period. The principle reason for this is the high quality of the music, but the stories in these three operas seem to offer more to explore than much standard baroque operatic fare.

Richard Jones' production is one of the best I have ever seen of a baroque opera. He and designer Jeremy Herbert update it to be a late 20th century mafia story, but far from being the normal yawnful excuse for some acme grimyness and mafia cliches, here Jones uses it to carefully delineate each character, and add specificity and clarity to all the character relationships. Jones' trademark sense of humour is present but what is so refreshing is that the humour is internal to the story and never at the expense of the piece. Far too often in my opinion are baroque operas presented with a knowing irony i.e. where the silliness of the plot is acknowledged in some way by the characters on stage. I find that approach lazy and boring, cheap laughs though it raises, so Jones' production comes as a wondrously refreshing model of how this pitfall can be avoided without resorting to humourless, stolid literalism, which often strays dangerously close to (and is on occasion even used as an excuse for) the realm of the park and bark where laziness reaches it's exultant, perfected form. Jones' humour is dark, incisive, but also adds colour and allows the opera's moments of searing poignance to soar even higher.

Rodelinda (when given in full) is a series of 30ish solo arias, a duet, a trio and a final short chorus for the principles. This musico-dramatic design, when combined with the ABA form of the da capo aria and it's repetitious use of text, make forward dramatic momentum a real challenge for the singer and director to achieve, not just within each number, but on the longer range too. It's not that Handel's operas are inherently undramatic, merely that they need a directorial approach which suits them and we are still at an early period of their modern rehabilitation to the stage: a new tradition needs to be forged and built upon. One of the greatest felicities of the design in this production is the tripartite set which allows us to to track the stories of more than one character at a time by letting us see what is going on in adjacent rooms. The rooms are brilliantly linked together not just physically by doors, but visually also by surveillance cameras and screens allowing characters to react in private to the goings on of another room, and for the watched to send messages to their observers. This allows for greater psychological complexity to evolve, and also ensures that nothing remains too static.

Hugely aided by Herbert's excellent set design, Jones' approach to staging each aria is consistently inventive and engaging because the antics of the characters come clearly out of plot and situation, and because each character is obviously trying to do something in each aria, rather than just telling you about their emotions, a sense of forward momentum is maintained. What I admired particularly is Jones' sensitivity to the score, and how the staging is obviously informed by the music. One part that sticks in my mind is the staging of the Act II duet, one of the most beautiful Handel ever wrote but difficult to handle dramatically because of the unlikeliness of the villain allowing the two lovers a final union with no questions asked. Jones solves this conundrum in an ingenious way - whenever Rodelinda and Bertarido sing their twisting vocal lines the rest of the characters freeze, and then as soon as we get to a purely instrumental section, the other characters spring into action, divorcing the two lovers into two separate rooms. The effect is that we have our cake and eat it a) the searing beauty of the duet gets the stillness it needs to bloom, taking on an almost spiritual intensity as the characters are pulled apart; b) the libretto is followed as the lovers are united, but the drama is allowed to continue as are then "immediately" torn apart - the slow motion allows us both. Right at the end we get a coup de theatre - the actual rooms of the building are pulled apart, leaving Grimoaldo, the orchestrator of this event, unexpectedly alone and alienated in the cavernous depths of the rest of the set, punished by his own punishment. It doesn't come across as fussy or gimmicky directing because it's not extraneous to the music, and in fact enhances our experience of the piece as drama.

At other times, a wholly static staging is used to let the music speak - During Bertarido's Act II aria, yearning, pastoral and dreamy as it is, he sits slumped at a bar for the entire duration, the only change being the slowly shifting lights of the bar which cycle through a beautiful spectrum of colours. The feeling of alienation in the metropolitan, social setting, the yearning for nature in all this beautiful artifice, the feeling of dream like suspension that the shifting lambency of the lighting provide, all support the music beautifully. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting design throughout is in fact superb, really adding to the story telling in a noticeable way without being intrusive - lighting is such a pleasure when it is done this well.

Video is used sparingly, but intelligently - Jeremy Herbert and Steven Williams connect it directly with the stage action, props and set, and so doesn't seem "grafted on" as it often does in other productions. In the opening scene, the Grimoaldo is approving designs for a trophy like object that we don't yet know the purpose of yet. Then, during a film transition we see that it is actually a model for the enormous memorial monument that he has erected for his predecessor - a lovely twist that speaks volumes of the character and situation. Then later, another video sequence depicts the statue's destruction, again something that couldn't be satisfactorily shown on stage (cf. the recent Met Götterdämmerung) and then we see the enormous pieces of wreckage immediately afterwards. It's fun, dramatically effective, and non invasive or distracting from the story telling.

The score is judiciously cut, and though the high quality of this score means that beautiful music is certainly being lost, the piece is such a feast that one doesn't feel short changed, and indeed one is somewhat thankful that one is not being forced into gluttony, which can lead to monotony. I must also just mention the wonderful idea of having Flavio not as a helpless, innocent child, but instead as a brooding teenager, a gangster already in training. Matt Casey does a great job in this silent role, supporting Rodelinda in her threats, half dancing, half clowning - excellent directing and acting choices here.

Rebecca Evans revealed a truly gorgeous full lyric instrument as Rodelinda, almost ideal for the role in terms of timbre, weight and flexibility. Her acting became more committed and precise as the evening progressed, and her commitment to colour and expression in her arias was very admirable when so many singers aim for a bland, "white" sound in Handel. The main drawback was the lack of a sustained legato line - a maximum of three notes at a time were connected which lead to a mosaic like style of phrasing, where a more expansive line would have been welcome. However, in light of the other aspects of her performance and the beauty of the voice, much could be forgiven. Iestyn Davies was equally committed and beautiful of tone as Evans, and his slow arias were particular highlights. I'm not a fan of the way that every few notes will arbitrarily be a totally straight tone between five other beautifully vibratoed (new word?!) syllables, but nevertheless he continues to be one of the finest counter tenors around. I haven't ever written on this blog about my reservations regarding the inherent limitations of the counter tenor voice, and their extremely anachronistic use in baroque opera, but that's another blog post.

The last time I saw Susan Bickley it was as a superlative Ortrud in WNO's wonderful recent Lohengrin. That she is capable within the same year of singing Handel to such a high level speaks to her musicianship and great technique. As Eduige her coloratura is excellent, the vibrato controlled, so if it isn't the most plush sound, she makes up for it in other ways. John Mark Ainsley presents a similar case - the voice is not always the most beautiful any more, but he is a stylish, sensitive interpreter in a huge range of repertoire, who easily makes the villain Grimoaldo into a fully rounded, sympathetic figure. Baritone Richard Burkhard and counter tenor Christopher Ainslie round a truly excellent cast.

Christian Curnyn manages to transform the ENO orchestra into an extremely effective baroque band, and seems to have become the ENO's in house conductor for this repertoire. Tempos are often slightly on the fast side, though they remain unhurried, and his ear for timbre and balance is expert. Some of the playing was quite spectacular such as the blurred, careening chromatics in the accompaniment of Bertarido's furious Act 3 aria. Let us hope that this production is revived as swiftly as possible. It's a co-production with the Bolshoi, but I sincerely hope that other European companies will take it on as well.

Photos (c) Clive Barda/ENO

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