High Musical Standards in ENO’s Rodelinda

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel Rodelinda (1725, sung in English): Soloist and Orchestra of English National Opera/Christian Curnyn (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 28.2.2014 (CC)

Rodelinda – Rebecca Evans
Bertarido – Iestyn Davies
Flavio – Matt Casey
Grimoaldo – John Mark Ainsley
Eduige – Susan Bickley
Garibaldo – Richard Burkhard
Unulfo – Christopher Ainslie


Director – Richard Jones
Set Designer – Jeremy Herbert
Costume Designer- Nicky Gillibrand
Live Video – Adam Young
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin

English National Opera has, over the years, established a fine reputation for Handel opera, including a stimulating Semele in 2004 and  a memorable Partenope in 2008. It comes soon after an astonishing  concert performance of Theodora at the Barbican less than a month ago. As a musical celebration of Handel, this Rodelinda is right up there with them. The production (Richard Jones) may ruffle feathers though. Set in 1950’s Italy, this is a startling and thought-provoking production. A map adorns a room, with “Milano” written though it, to take away any doubt as to locale. Politics and emotions, of course, run through the course of Italian history hand in hand, so on paper at least this is a shrewd move. Power is at the heart of this score, as is the heightened emotion of grief. As is violence, with a plethora of weaponry on show at various points. This is not for the faint-hearted.

The story is not a difficult one: Grimoaldo has driven Bertarido from his kingdom. Bertarido is assumed to be dead, and his wife Rodelinda mourns. Imprisoning Rodelinda, Grimoaldo will only release her if she agrees to become his wife. Rodelinda is left alone in a room (the right-hand side of the stage) where her mirror doubles as a webcam. Iin another room (seen on the other side of the stage) Grimoaldo watches. Of course, the “dead” King returns in disguise … An interconnecting space between the two rooms is used for a variety of encounters.

The rooms also disappear – to reveal a huge monument to Bartarido in one instance, or a bar in another. The problem is that at times the actions of the characters – in mime, or in action, real or threatened – became rather too comic. This is not a comic opera, but such are the funny moments here the uninitiated could come away with the impression that the serious scenes mar what is essentially a comedy. All is not as it should be, surely. Tattoos bearing the name “Rodelinda” are visible on characters’ backs; three treadmills appear sporadically, the action of effectively running on the spot perhaps reflecting the impossibility of escape from events. Lighting (Mimi Jordan Sherrin) is exemplary and atmospheric.

The singing was pretty uniformly of the top rank. Only the titular heroine, the experienced Rebecca Evans took a little time to warm in, but when she hit form it was there for good. No such reproach is required for Susan Bickley, who as Edwige (Bartarido’s sister) made an impressive stage presence as well as great vocal depth and agility.  Of course there are two main counter-tenor roles here. South African counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie spectacularly took the role of Unulfo, one of two main counter-tenor roles, the other being Bertarido, the usurped King himself, taken by Iestyn Davies, rather darker of voice. His aria, “O where are thou, dearest beloved?” was beautifully done, eminently believable and unutterably heartbreaking.

The baritone Richard Burkhard (Garibaldo) was gorgeously focused of voice in his act one aria; as Grimoaldo, John Mark Ainsley was completely convincing as someone who felt completely at ease in his villainy and as such was believably malevolent.. Yet his final act repentance aria (“Pastorello d’un povero armento” in the original language) was a masterclass in tenderness.

 The silent role of Flavio, son of Rodelinda and Bertarido, is taken effectively and poignantly by Matt Casey. There is so much to enjoy here musically that this Rodelinda remains a must-see, not least for the excellence of the orchestra. It is impossible to overstate the rightness of Christian Curnyn’s conducting. Every single tempo feels right; balances are natural and perfectly judged. The orchestral balance itself is fairly meaty, with full emphasis retained for the bass end. An amazing evening. There are six remaining performances – if you can get a ticket (the first night looked all but sold out) go.

Colin Clarke