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by on 27 October 2017

Uneasy sleeps the head that wears the crown


by George Frideric Handel, libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym

English National Opera at The London Coliseum until 15th November

Review by Suzanne Frost

I always find it quite amusing how the English have adopted the German Georg Frideric Handel as one of their own, a great British composer.  But one could possibly describe him as a truly European artist, masterfully incorporating Italian, German and – to a lesser extent – French style and influences while authoritatively shaping English Baroque music.  Richard Jones’ hugely entertaining and innovative production of Rodelinda at ENO strikes me as equally European, something you would maybe expect Barrie Kosky to do in Germany: a bold, quirky reimagining, moving the plot into a 1940s Mafiosi milieu with a distinct cinematic aesthetic, half Italian film noir half Graphic Novel, topped with a blood-heavy Tarantino-esque finale.


The story, in typical Baroque Opera style, is a confusing muddle of love triangles and Machiavellian politics, where Queen Rodelinda loves Bertarido, whom she believes dead so agrees to marry the usurper Grimualdo but only to save her son Flavio, whose life is threatened by the evil Garibaldo, secretly plotting his own ascend to the throne by manipulating the lovesick Eduige, sister of Bertarido … more tangled relationships than a season of Game of Thrones.  Baroque audiences didn’t really care for coherent plot, they came for masterful virtuosity showcasing spectacular voices and musical skill – Handel’s particular field of expertise, stringing together one da capo aria after the next.  It is therefore surprising, imaginative and an extraordinary achievement, how Richard Jones puts all the focus and energy of his staging into storytelling.  Our character’s motivations are so central to this production, they each and all have them tattooed somewhere on their body.

Rebecca Evans as Queen Rodelinda is a fierce and fearless Italian Mama, dominating every scene and singlehandedly driving the action, manipulating the men to her needs, sometimes sensuous and flirty, sometimes furious and raging.  Juan Sancho, in his ENO debut, gives a sleazy skinny rock star attitude to Grimoaldo, all sharp suits and coiffed hair.


The male lead Bertarido is a surprisingly passive character, always outside the action watching his wife’s struggles from exile.  It is down to the unique stage presence and crystal clear voice of counter tenor Tim Mead, that Bertarido’s few scenes are some of the most memorable and magical.  I loved him crashing in a trashy neon lit bar, singing his sorrows into a whiskey glass á la Frank Sinatra.  The duet “Io t’abbraccio” with his wife Rodelinda at the end of Act II is heart wrenching, two exceptional voices blending in ethereal beauty while Jones creates the most stunning visual image with our lovers divided by a wall slowly drifting apart leaving the triumphant Grimoaldo alone on an empty stage.


But singling out two melancholic moments would undermine how hilariously funny this production is, from Garibaldo nonchalantly feeding Bertarido’s portrait into a shredder and observing Rodelinda on CCTV, to her pouring coffee onto a pristine white fur stole, an unwanted gift, all while easy- breezing through elaborate coloratura.  The American countertenor Christopher Lowrey plays Bertarido’s servant Unulfo as a comic relief sidekick, a buffo countertenor, something I didn’t even know could exist.  He is adorable and darkly funny, slowly and copiously bleeding, while profusely apologising to his master who stabbed him by mistake.  The actor Matt Casey makes the most out of his role as Rodelinda’s mute son Flavio.  Slightly psychopathic, slightly OCD, he is a looming Frankenstein’s monster presence obsessively covering every inch of the dingy cell they are kept in with pictures of his father, tattooing “vengeance” on to his hands and skilfully miming all the various ideas he has for murdering Garibaldo.

All this over the top humour might sound gimmicky, and I could understand someone holding that opinion, but for me the production at all times finds the perfect balance between overdrawn campiness and serious skill.  Between all the action, the abundance of ideas and the constant movement, Jones finds beautiful moments of stillness where only the music speaks.  Occasionally I would have wished for more power and energy from the orchestra (lead by baroque specialist extraordinaire Christian Curnyn) to match the exuberance of the singers on stage, such as in Grimoaldo’s aria in Act III “Fatto inferno é il mio petto” or Bertarido’s final “vivi, tiranno” where Handel suddenly has a welcome urgency, dramatically different to the many lamenting largos he admittedly does so well.  A very special note to the outstanding translation by Amanda Holden, simple modern English, every phrase perfectly articulated, every word crystal clear.  This is what I believe opera should be like in 2017.  I want singers to act their socks off while delivering their extraordinary skills.  I want directors with real imaginary vision and bold new takes on those old masterpieces.  A simple but perfectly functioning set design full of atmosphere.  Most of all, I want storytelling, characterisation, theatricality all on the same level as the music.  This Rodelinda has it all, it is engaging, vivacious, hilarious, virtuosic and an absolute delight.

Suzanne Frost

October 2017


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