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Gillian Ramm as Rodelinda and James Laing as Bertarido [Photo courtesy of Iford Arts]
31 Jul 2011

Rodelinda Triumphs at Iford Opera

Rodelinda is about as serious an opera as any that Handel wrote: attempted regicide and infanticide, violent death, betrayal and a marriage sorely tried.

G. F. Handel: Rodelinda

Rodelinda: Gillian Ramm; Bertarido: James Laing; Grimoaldo: Nathan Vale; Garibaldo: Jonathan Brown; Eduige: Doreen Curran; Unulfo: Owen Willetts; Flavio: Alex Surtees/Yves Morris. Director: Martin Constantine. Designer: Mark Friend. Conductor: Christian Curnyn. Music: Orchestra of the Early Opera Company.

Above: Gillian Ramm as Rodelinda and James Laing as Bertarido

Photos courtesy of Iford Arts

 

Nobility in love and war — ideas fully understood in all of their ramifications in the season of 1724-25 when Handel wrote this marvellous music to match the libretto of Nicola Haym — are the cornerstones of this opera’s appeal and a wise director understands this. This time in Handel’s career — around his 40th birthday — was one of the most fertile in his life. Within just 14 months he had composed not only Rodelinda, but also Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano. All are great operas, and it’s no surprise to see all three regularly performed by the top opera houses around the world today. So, with a huge emotional canvas to explore with Rodelinda, how did the small but ambitious Iford Opera fare with this tale set in about 500 AD, in what is now northern Italy?

Brilliantly is the answer. At Iford’s Friday night first performance the full house of some 90 people were treated to what must be one of the most riveting and persuasive productions of this opera in the UK in the last decade - and all the more remarkable given the comparative youthfulness of the singers and constraints of this miniature faux-Italiante cloister performance space. And for once it was the whole artistic team working together to bring Handel’s great music to life: design, direction, music and voice. The opera, as is usual at Iford, is sung in English, and the young singers all had excellent diction — far better in fact than many of their more illustrious seniors working today.

The plot is (for opera seria) fairly straightforward: Rodelinda is Queen of Lombardy, her husband Bertarido is a king apparently defeated and killed by the usurper Grimoaldo who, not content with just the kingdom, also wants Rodelinda’s love as well. The Queen resists his blandishments, and of course pretty soon Bertarido does return and sets in motion the power-play between Good and Evil. Or at least, so it seems. There is more to this story than that of course and, gradually, through a series of passionate and soul-searching arias from all the protagonists we come to understand better the dilemmas of royal blood (or just power) and those who aspire to it.

Director Martin Constantine and designer Mark Friend have worked wonders with Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company to make the most of Iford’s “in the square” performance space and the usefully compressed and claustrophobic nature of this opera’s plot, based as it is inside the royal palace throughout, was ideal for their purposes. The focus of all the action is an all-purpose central table in, on, and around which everything revolves. Props are confined to clever use of paper : as screens, drapes, photocopied prints of family life before the troubles, and the odd knife here and there. Costumes were drab modern, with little to differentiate master from servant. As the EOC’s stylish period band of 13 musicians began the Overture the audience were bemused by large paper screens apparently blocking their view of the “stage” area but as the music came to an end hooded and cloaked men silently entered from different directions and dramatically tore into the screens and destroyed them: the throne of Bertarido had been usurped, Grimoaldo was now in power with Rodelinda and her son Flavio at his mercy, and let the action commence.

Rodelinda_Iford_02.gifOwen Willetts as Unulfo

Here, from the very first notes of Rodelinda’s lament for her lost husband, it is immediately obvious that soprano Gillian Ramm is the real deal as a Handelian heroine. Her voice is warm, well-projected and secure of technique with a sumptuous gleaming top that she uses with musicality and confidence. As the evening progressed she showed some lovely colours in the slow airs and nicely appropriate ornamentation — her “Return, my dearest love” was intelligently phrased and limpidly sung, although a little more light and shade in dynamics could have improved the overall effect even more.

She was quickly joined by tenor Nathan Vale as the usurper Grimoaldo and baritone Jonathan Brown as his treacherous, ambitious henchman Garibaldo. Vale is well known in UK Handelian circles — a previous winner of the Handel Singing Prize in London — and his voice and acting have both developed well since then. His tenor is now best described as a strong lyric -although in this role only the delightfully lilting “Happy shepherd boy” near the end of the final Act allows him to show his more lyrical qualities. His obvious command of Handelian idiom coupled well with some detailed acting of this complex character who is torn between right and wrong throughout; some initial tightness at the top of his range soon disappeared and he gave a memorable performance.

He was matched both vocally and dramatically by Brown as the scheming Garibaldo — this part is so easily reduced to cardboard-cutout villainy that it was a revelation to see and hear Brown discovering the nuances of Handel’s scoring for this unpleasant character. His baritone is not of the chocolate-smooth variety but it is flexible, expressive and commanding without resorting to the baritone “bark” one sometimes hears. A very polished performance.

As Rodelinda’s husband and king of Lombardy, Bertarido is the typical Handelian hero in all his complexity. Sung here by the rising British countertenor James Laing, we were treated to some sensitive and perceptive music-making which brought the character’s emotional journey very close to home — his duet with Ramm in “I embrace you” was a highlight for them both. As Bertarido descends into depression and despair towards the end of the first half his singing was simply heart-rending and his acting totally committed. Laing’s voice is sweet, supple, light and flexible but not large; having heard him sing Vivaldi at Garsington recently I was surprised to find him a little lacking in projection here. He was tiring by the end after an all-guns-blazing “Live tyrant” and perhaps was not one hundred per cent fit on this night.

The other male “good guy” of the opera is Bertarido’s servant/assistant Unulfo who epitomises the ideals of loyalty, strength of character, courage beyond the call etc. He is not an out and out hero: he is the little guy, the ignored chap in the corner, the one who sees everything and says little. As such, it’s a gift for any singing actor and although shorn of two arias early in the opera in this production, young Owen Willetts made the most of it and in doing so displayed an astonishing countertenor voice that lingers in the memory. His voice is dark, dark, and darker with a power and projection that reminded me of early Derek Lee Ragin or perhaps Bejun Mehta, which is all the more surprising given his English choral scholar background. His expressive features and obvious facility for dramatic expression when intelligently directed complete the picture, and if he lacks heroic inches there’s plenty else to compensate.

The final character completing this intense cauldron of power and passion is that of the wronged, vengeful Eduige, sister of Bertarido and focus of Garibaldo’s ambition and lust. Irish mezzo soprano Doreen Curran is an accomplished actress and threw herself into this role with a full, flexible mezzo which she used with dramatic flair. The voice is rich and warm in the middle with some golden tones at the top and her scenes with Brown were thrillingly intense, although perhaps there was scope for more ornamentation in her da capos, particularly in her early “vendetta” aria. Again, as with all these singers, her diction was superb.

A word must be said about the mute role of the boy Flavio, played on first night by the very young actor Yves Morris. He stayed in character throughout his scenes (which were long and intense) and gave a very promising performance, whatever his future holds.

Curnyn’s Early Opera orchestra is now one of the best small period bands around and their contribution to the production cannot be underestimated; driving, supporting and colouring the drama at every turn with some skilled and responsive playing. Some minor tuning problems in the strings half way through were quickly sorted and the thirteen players received their fair share of what was a prolonged and very enthusiastic ovation for this terrific Rodelinda. Handel opera is so often these days second-guessed by ego-driven directors and stage producers; Iford Arts can be congratulated on producing a modern version that stayed true to the essence of England’s greatest composer.

Sue Loder

Handel’s Rodelinda continues at Iford Opera, Bradford on Avon, England on August 2nd, 3rd, 5th 6th and 9th. A few tickets remain at time of writing. See www.ifordarts.co.uk

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