Richard Jones’ version of Rodelinda, which represents a co-production between English National Opera and the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow, was generally well received at its premiere in 2014. If on that occasion, however, the undoubtedly dynamic staging sometimes felt just a little too frenetic and hence distracting, that problem has now been overcome in this first revival, directed by Donna Stirrup. This is not because the production has been toned down, but rather the opposite. Because there is now a greater sense of ease to it, things can actually be pushed further without feeling false or overblown.
The action is updated from the seventh century to 1930s Milan, with the usurper Grimoaldo consequently feeling like a Mussolini-style dictator. The main stage is initially divided into three areas, so that different scenes can be seen in parallel. In this way, Grimoaldo can be in his office while periodically gazing on his beloved Rodelinda in a cell opposite, as a camera above her transmits her picture live to a screen. The way in which fascist dictators would promote their own image is also explored. At the start, Grimoaldo shreds pictures of Bertarido while Rodelinda plasters her cell with them. Later Grimoaldo organises for pictures of Bertarido and Rodelinda to be cut in two so that he can have his own walls covered with the latter’s image only.
The humour seems played up to a far greater extent this time. The far-fetched nature of the plot is sent up by arranging things so that the key to the secret passage that Eduige and Unulfo require to help free Bertarido just happens to be lying in front of them. Such moments succeed in generating loud bursts of laughter from the audience, which is impressive given that normally productions of Handel operas never elicit more than a few chuckles.
Grimoaldo walking off with a giant bundle of explosives under his arm is another moment that achieves a huge laugh, and overall the deft employment of props, gestures and movements helps to generate a lively pace. The fact that activity often occurs around each singer also highlights the self-indulgent nature of their arias. It is almost as if the other characters are pointing out what the person should be paying attention to while they are getting so caught up in themselves.
As a counterbalance to this, a greyish screen with three doors in it often descends in front of the sets. When the principals perform before it, it can lead to a quieter staging that allows us to focus more on the individuals, although this is not always the case as sometimes much activity is seen here too. Three treadmills also appear, which introduce different dynamics as people sprint, slink or mope across them, perhaps suggesting that in the journey of life one has to run in order to stand still.
Rodelinda’s son Flavio is played by Matt Casey, who essentially adopts the role of a mime artist for the evening. For example, when Rodelinda sings how once she is queen she will take Garibaldo’s life he repeatedly portrays the carrying out of an execution, complete with watching the head bounce as it falls. This does not mean, however, that he is a two-dimensional figure as his seemingly passive face actually suggests he is all-knowing. He is active in the plot so that when Rodelinda urges Grimoaldo to kill him, Flavio grabs his arm as if encouraging him to thrust the blade into his body. It is the fact that this silent figure is given such character that makes the final ‘twist’ in this production (which it would be a shame to divulge) feel earned rather than arbitrary.
Beginning with the excellent conducting of Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn, the evening’s musical credentials are exceptionally strong. Rebecca Evans in the title role reveals a beautiful soprano that feels very full, and yet maintains purity and clarity by possessing such a glistening edge. As Bertarido, Tim Mead’s countertenor reaches ethereal heights as its smoothness, lightness and expansiveness all come together to produce a vocal performance that is as precise as it is moving. As Unulfo Christopher Lowrey’s own countertenor has a warmth that makes his own sound immensely pleasing and accessible.
Susan Bickley as Eduige presents a priceless portrayal of one whose fear and vulnerability feel all too real as her chances of taking the crown diminish, and yet who shows real strength, resolve and intelligence once she decides to pursue what is right for Bertarido rather than herself. Juan Sancho has a good tenor and shows Grimoaldo to be undoubtedly an evil usurper, and yet not one who totally lacks morals or sensitivity. Neal Davies, on the other hand, demonstrates a brilliantly firm bass-baritone voice as the unequivocally malevolent Garibaldo.