Reviewed by James Karas
Abduction, usurpation, treachery, attempted murder are the staples of opera and all of them can be found in George Frideric Handel’s Rodelinda. But this is opera seria, 1725 vintage, and truth to tell, it can be very static.
Director Richard Jones will have none of that. His production for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum has splendid singing and a plot that moves like a gangster picture. Forget the ornate palace and the magnificent attire that these royals and would-be royals are entitled to. Jones moves the action to the 20th century with some realistic and some surreal elements.
All the characters wear dark clothes, suits for the men, long gowns for the women. I choose to think of the plot as a turf war in an organized crime family but it may just be a film noir about gangsters. Grimoaldo (John Mark Ainsley) has usurped the throne/territory of Bertarido (Iestyn Davies) and is lusting after his wife Rodelinda (Rebecca Evans). Grimoaldo is already engaged to Bertarido’s sister Eduige (Susan Bickley).
Grimoaldo’s henchman Garibaldo (Richard Burkhard) advises him to dump Eduige. Grimoaldo does and Garibaldo forms and alliance with her in his bid for power. We also have Unulfo (Christopher Ainslie) who works for Grimoaldo but secretly supports Bertarido. And that’s just the beginning.
Handel has provided music and vocal parts to delight any audience. But the arias and duets can be sung in front of a single set in the palace with the singers’ feet nailed to the floor. The opera can almost be performed as a concert piece. Jones and Set Designer have created a multi-faceted set that allows for movement and fluidity. In the third act, for example, the stage is divided into six separate sections including a holding cell, a corridor, an office and a couple of other rooms for the good and the bad characters to wander through.
Some of the men carry daggers stuck in the front of their pants which I found rather surreal. When Grimoaldo is tempted to murder Bertarido he is provided with a sledge hammer, a torch and a huge sword. There is also a detonator used to blow up Bertarido’s monument and some use of video projections. In other words, there is no lack of activity in this production.
That in no way detracts from the essential character of the opera or diminishes the music and singing that are the hallmark of its greatness. Soprano Rebecca Evans is superb in the title role. She has some gorgeously affecting solos and duets that she performs with emotion and vocal finesse.
She is well-matched by countertenor Davies who, like Rodelinda, gets some of the finest arias and duets in the opera. His trills, his smooth transitions, the sheer beauty of his voice are simply a delight for the ear.
Kudos to countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Unulfo, the other nice guy in the opera. He displayed beauty of tone and singing to a very high degree.
With mezzo soprano Susan Bickley as Eduige the voices go lower as the moral standards of the characters decrease. Not Bickley’s singing, I hasten to add.
The lower voices of baritone Burkhard and tenor Ainsley represent the villains and I was not as happy with them. Beside the countertenors, they did not sound as satisfactory and they certainly could not handle some of the trills as well. I may be unfair to compare them to the different voice ranges but there it is.
Christian Curnyn conducted the orchestra to gorgeous effect. The opera is sung in English in this new coproduction with the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.
Rodelinda by George Frideric Handel opened on February 28 and will be performed eight times until March 15, 2014 at the London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London. www.eno.org Box office: 020 7845 9300