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ENO Rodelinda 2014 - Iestyn Davies, Rebecca Evans (c) Clive Barda
03 Mar 2014

Torn Between Rival Loyalties

Handel’s great opus, Rodelinda, at English National Opera on Friday night was the latest in the Coliseum’s recent run of new and co-produced productions, and also renowned director Peter Jones’ latest foray into the world of opera.

Torn Between Rival Loyalties

A review by Sue Loder

Above: Iestyn Davies as Bertarido and Rebecca Evans as Rodelinda

Photos © Clive Barda

 

A full-ish house for the first night seemed from the start inclined to be indulgent and supportive (does a Friday night after a long week in the office in London help a new production? Discuss......) and was helped along by what sounded suspiciously like a small claque cheering from the very first da capo aria (“let’s get this lot going chaps”?) without, it has to be said, that much cause at that particular moment.

ENO Rodelinda 2014 - John Mark Ainsley 4 (c) Clive BardaJohn Mark Ainsley as Grimoaldo

Never mind, the audience did not need much further encouragement to applaud as we were that night treated to one of the finest expositions of handelian singing across the vocal spectrum that we’ve heard for quite a while. A superb collection of the best British singing talent gathered under one roof to show the world how Handel should — ought — to be sung. John Mark Ainsley, (Grimoaldo), Susan Bickley (Eduige), Iestyn Davies (Bertarido), and Rebecca Evans (Rodelinda) took on the leading roles in this tale of loyalty, power, love and lust and gave full measure at every turn. They were supported no less ably by Richard Burkhard (Garibaldo), Christopher Ainslie (Unulfo) and Matt Casio (a non singing, but certainly acting Flavio). One could spend paragraphs praising each performer’s intelligent and musical interpretations, but suffice to say that there was not one weak link in this chain of excellence although inevitably both Evans and Davies, as chief protagonists and with the most sublime and ferocious arias to their credit, did receive the loudest and longest ovations come the end of three plus hours of Mr Handel at his best. And each singer of course supported by the dash, drive and commitment to baroque style that Christian Curnyn supplied from the pit.

I mentioned loyalty as a major driver in the plot: it came through again and again both within the personal relationships of the characters and in their wider political and philosophical concerns but it was loyalty much closer to home which worried this writer most. One wishes only success and financial security for English National Opera as it goes forward from some pretty torrid times; one wishes that Handel’s greatest works should become loved by ever larger audiences in ever more numerous productions; one wishes that more opera house orchestras could adapt as stylishly to baroque details as does ENO’s; and one wishes our British theatrical production talents ever more plaudits both here and overseas as they bring new ideas and angles to old favourites. However, the elephant in the room on Friday night, it must be said, was this very thing. Peter Jones has already garnered many plaudits for his theatrical insight and challenging productions around the world, but on leaving the theatre on Friday night it became clear that this production was splitting people down the middle.

ENO Rodelinda 2014 2 (c) Clive BardaA scene from Rodelinda

A straw poll aftewards produced extremes of reaction: “marvellous, clever, thought-provoking” at one end and “poor singers, how did they produce such excellence within such dire, distracting drivel?” at the other. To be fair, he and his team did (mostly) give the singers both space and focus on the stage for their big numbers; it was all the stuff in between that in this writer’s opinion was either indulgent, patronising or plain wrong. Once again, poor Mr Handel has suffered from a director’s inability to trust the music, an inability to understand that emotion, conflict and psychological evolution is already there — on the score, within the bars and notes, riding on the swell and trough of fine singing. Others will disagree, no doubt; some will say it’s a modern masterpiece; only the audiences of the future will decide and let’s hope they do in droves. What is without doubt is that Rodelinda will survive it all and with singers as good as we heard in the Coliseum we can rest assured that Mr Handel will always have the last word.

Sue Loder

Until 15 March. Tickets: 020 7845 9300; www.eno.org

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