ENO’s Rodelinda – Musical Triumph Beset by Problematic Staging

29/10/2017

Handel, Rodelinda: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Christian Curnyn (conductor). London Coliseum, 26.10.2017. (CC)

R

ENO’s Rodelinda © Jane Hobson

Cast:

Rodelinda – Rebecca Evans
Bertarido – Tim Mead
Flavio – Matt Casey
Grimoaldo – Juan Sancho
Eduige – Susan Bickley
Garibaldo – Neal Davies
Unulfo – Christopher Lowrey

Production:

Director – Richard Jones
Revival Director – Donna Stirrup
Set Designer – Jeremy Herbert
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillbrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Revival Lighting Designer – Ian Jackson-French
Choreographer – Sarah Fahie
Video Designer – Steven Williams
Fight Director – Bret Yount

The original run of Richard Jones’ busy, intriguing staging of Rodelinda was reviewed by myself in 2014. Placing the action in Milan in the Fascist era is in theory fine given the plot’s machinations (enlarged male egos naturally extend to this idea of control, hence perhaps the prominent tattooing of Rodelinda’s name on bodies), yet there now seems to be even more going on both while arias are being sung and elsewhere. It’s all rather fussy, sometimes a tad irritating, and veering towards sensory overload: the video projections certainly seem unnecessary, if impressive. And the number of comedic touches put Rodelina on a parallel footing almost with Mozart Figaro, to the detriment of the deeper emotions at work here. Talking of parallel footings, a series of three treadmills are used to indicate chase, and perhaps the futility of actions by literally walking on the spot.

The stage remains split into two rooms with a connecting corridor, expanded into five rooms in the final act, each room a character’s own world – kingdom, even. Rodelinda is stranded in her cell with Flavio, her silent son; the political hub of Grimoaldo is seen on the other side of the stage.

The fact it works musically over its extended length (3.5 hours) can be confidently attributed to the conducting of Christian Curnyn, well known for his activities with his Early Opera Company (he conducted Partenope in March also). The chameleon ENO Orchestra plays its collective heart out for him, with sprightly rhythms where called for and great expressive force elsewhere. Not a period band, obviously, but everywhere there was evidence of a reverence for Handelian style and, indeed, intent.

Rebecca Evans returns as Rodelinda – not as vocally secure perhaps as in 2014 but nevertheless a gripping assumption of the role and, most importantly, a believable one. She has all the agility her role requires, too, as her opening aria in the second act testified. Counter-tenor Tim Mead was an imposing presence both vocally and physically as Bertarido (the character usurped by Grimoaldo); his lament is set in a sleazy bar as he drinks away his sorrows. To follow Iestyn Davies is a hard ask, but Mead makes the role his own.

Handel writes for not one but two counter-tenors, and the casting here ensures they are markedly differentiated in terms of sound, with Christopher Lowrey as the rounder-voiced singer in the part of Unulfo, the advisor to Grimoaldo who secretly supports Bertarido.

Reprising her role of Eguige (Bartarido’s sister), Susan Bickley cuts an imposing presence throughout, dominating the stage on each and every appearance, while Juan Sancho, taking over Grimoaldo from John Mark Ainsley, eminently musical throughout but particularly in the closing stages. Neal Davies takes the role of Grimoaldo’s ally Garibaldo with aplomb (previously taken by Richard Burkhard).

Actor Matt Casey reprises the silent role as Rodelinda’s son Flavio, but the role seems more prominent than I remember in 2014; he excels, augmenting the ongoing action brilliantly. The evening is a musical triumph; the staging, while intriguing on one level, remains problematical, alas.

Colin Clarke

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