Richard Jones’s sombre version of Handel’s Rodelinda, returning to the Coliseum after a three-year break, is a far cry from the frothiness of ENO’s Partenope, which I reviewed back in March.
Grimoaldo, not content with stealing the throne from rightful king Bertarido, has designs on his queen, Rodelinda, while sidekick Garibaldo sets his cap at her sister-in-law Eduige. Missing-presumed-dead Bertarido, meanwhile, delays revealing himself in order to test Rodelinda’s fidelity – with disastrous results. There’s plenty in this farrago for Jones, with his trademark pitch-black humour, to get his teeth into.
Jeremy Herbert’s multi-level set relocates the action to seedy post-war Milan, where Rodelinda dresses as Anna Magnani in Neorealist widow’s weeds. Jones’s stagecraft, inventive as ever, incorporates CCTV, Mafia blood ritual, neon, tango, Michelangelo’s Pieta and no doubt much else that I missed.
Everything moves at a frenetic pace. Doors bang, knives flash; nobody’s still for long in Jones operas (he’s even supplied some treadmills downstage this time). I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that performers should stand like statues to sing their arias, like in the old days, but you do begin to crave a bit more gravitas.
When Jones is good, though, he’s very good. The undoubted highlight is the reconciliation duet at the end of Act II: as Rodelinda and Bertarido sing ‘Io t’abbraccio’ (‘I embrace you’), the set slowly divides – sending them in different directions, as if in ironic counterpoint to the text. It’s a glorious fusion of music and spectacle, something only live opera can do.
Rebecca Evans, back in the title role for this production, sings beautifully, from the early bravura arias through to her final haunting lament, ‘Se’l mio duol’. Countertenor Tim Mead makes a charismatic Bertarido, and Spanish tenor Juan Sancho is a wonderfully sleazy Grimoaldo. Susan Bickley, Neal Davies and Christopher Lowrey lend strong support in the subsidiary roles, and there’s a sly, non-singing turn from Matt Casey as Rodelinda’s son Flavio.
If the evening belongs to anyone, though, it’s probably Christian Curnyn, who spins Baroque gold from the ENO Orchestra in the pit. Curnyn’s transparent love of Handel’s music is highly contagious and he rightly received the loudest ovations on opening night.
All pictures by Jane Hobson