Nobody knows anything anymore. Or perhaps it’s just me. When Richard Jones’s staging of Handel’s glorious opera first opened in 2014, yours truly slapped it with a grumpy two-star review. It went on to win the Olivier Award for best opera production. Probably wise, therefore, to approach this first revival in a spirit of cowed humility and emollience.
To do justice to English National Opera’s Rodelinda, close your eyes and it’s a world-beater. One of Handel’s most captivating scores is treated like musical royalty by Christian Curnyn and the ENO Orchestra; they provide an evening of ideal tempo choices, sweet dynamics and vivacious dramatic energy.
The cast is pretty much faultless, too. Rebecca Evans and Susan Bickley return to the roles of Rodelinda and Eduige in which they shone in 2014, joined on this occasion by the Spanish tenor Juan Sancho, not vocally a belter but suitably assertive as the antagonist Grimoaldo, plus a performance of astounding charisma by Tim Mead. Here is an artist whose stature as an operatic leading man grows and grows. The countertenor plays Rodelinda’s not-so-late husband hero Bertorido and he is magnetic, both physically and vocally.
Neal Davies sings the murderous Garibaldo with toothsome relish, while as the loyal Unulfo Christopher Lowrey matches his fellow countertenor Mead all the way, and actor Matt Casey mimes with panache in the silent role of Flavio, Rodelinda’s son.
‘A cynical job of work’
Although those elaborate character names are bewildering, Rodelinda has a simple plot, albeit with a cunning twist at its heart. King X is presumed dead; his widow, Queen Y, is apparently seduced by wicked Usurper Z… but all is not as it seems. When X returns and rescues Y, Z doesn’t stand a chance.
This plot, it appears, is too straightforward to interest Richard Jones in its unadorned state, so he eggs and overeggs and meddles with the drama in a production of frustrating excess that rarely lets the music speak for itself. Revived all too faithfully by Donna Stirrup, it’s a farrago in which cartoon comic cuts blot out the opera’s emotion and Handel’s da capo arias are rammed with hyperactive fidgeting lest the audience lose interest.
The locale is a non-specific totalitarian state in the mid-20th century. Jeremy Herbert‘s atmospheric designs, whether a dark wood office or a prison cell with whitewashed walls, reek of a Big Brother world of surveillance and tattoos that express or betray allegiances. But aria after aria is undermined by peripatetic idiocy, the most infantile of which involve Loony Tune allusions to extreme violence – especially during Grimoaldo’s third act aria “Tra sospetti” (‘Torn by suspicion’).
There are occasional saving graces when Jones allows for repose, e.g during Bertarido’s lament (set plausibly in a bar) and in his staging of the gorgeous love duet for the reconciled couple, but overall it’s a cynical job of work that’s been directed for audiences with short attention spans who don’t like Handel and need regular doses of fun to sustain their interest. He of all directors should have aimed higher.
A word of warning: as with every other ENO show this season, Rodelinda overruns badly. Add 40 minutes to the advertised running time and expect to be out shortly before 11.00 pm. Such sloppy timekeeping is not good if, as the middle word of the company name seems to acknowledge, the occasional spectator might conceivably hail from beyond the capital.
ENO’s production of Rodelinda runs in repertoire at the London Coliseum until 15 November.