Was there ever a composer who encapsulated the depths of human emotion as intensely – and concisely – as Handel? Listening with eyes shut to any number of arias in Rodelinda makes you wonder how one man living 300 years ago could speak to us today with such directness and uplifting power. The problem with English National Opera’s new production, directed by Richard Jones and designed by Jeremy Herbert and Nicky Gillibrand, is that it does not trust the music, however tastefully it is conducted by Christian Curnyn.
Instead, Jones’s scenario – a style-fest of Fascist Italy – compels us to smirk at characters apparently caught in a piece of political slapstick, an impression compounded by Amanda Holden’s clear translation. This is the renowned English director’s first Handel since his mid-1990s Munich Giulio Cesare, and it finds him on a treadmill.
Rodelinda dramatises the triumph of love over worldly power, fidelity over betrayal, good over evil – themes that Jones seems determined to trivialise. In playing for laughs he not only traduces Handel’s sentiments but also vulgarises his characters and underestimates his audience’s powers of concentration. One half of the heavily compartmentalised set is invariably occupied by whoever is singing, while the other half promotes sundry distractions – everything from tattoo-marking and video-watching to a wholly inappropriate Pietà.
Susan Bickley’s Eduige suffers most, strutting the stage like a granny masquerading as a tart – a pure figure of fun. John Mark Ainsley’s Grimoaldo, sung with dignity and taste, is a caricature of a sex-starved Mafioso. Richard Burkhard’s Garibaldo sounds crisp but dull, while Christopher Ainslie, as Unolfo, profiles a promising countertenor.
Rebecca Evans’s Rodelinda, a dead ringer for Anna Magnani in Rossellini’s 1945 war drama Rome, Open City, emerges as tough and earthy rather than noble and pure. The voice has more colour in the chest register than the top, but Evans handles her arias with unfailing aplomb. So, too, does Iestyn Davies’s Bertarido, the production’s one unqualified success. Davies’s stage presence and vocal projection have developed in leaps and bounds over the past couple of years: there’s a maturity and poise to his performance that bodes well for the future.