The Opéra de Lille opened its season with one of Handel’s tragic masterpieces: Rodelinda, in a new production which happens to be the first one conceived and performed in France. The libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym was inspired by a play by Corneille and tells the story of the Queen of Lombardy, whose husband, Bertarido, lost the war against the usurper Grimoaldo, Duc of Benevento, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, advised by the evil Garibaldo, wants to marry Rodelinda to consolidate his power, but she refuses to be the wife of a tyrant, murderer of her beloved husband. In the meantime, Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, also covets the throne and plots with Garibaldo. Bertarido returns to Milan in secret, with the help of his faithful friend Unulfo; the plot takes numerous twists and turns, some less comprehensible than others (like Rodelinda pretending to accept Grimoaldo’s marriage offer if he will kill her son), the evil Garibaldo is killed, Grimoaldo steps back and marries Eduige, and Bertarido and Rodelinda are restored to the throne.

In Jean Bellorini’s vision, the story is seen through the eyes of Flavio, Rodelinda and Bertarido’s child. The characters perform in his imagination: they move in the tiny rooms of a doll house, looking like giants; they wear masks and move like puppets, and, at times, each singer animates an actual puppet representing them. Blown-up images and videos of the child’s face are shown on the back of the stage as a haunting mute presence. The concept of making Flavio the centre of the action is not new; we have seen it in Madrid, in Claus Guth’s production, where its realization was considerably more successful. Bellorini puts layer upon layer between the audience and the action, which creates a distance and makes it difficult to relate to the story. Sometimes these layers are even physical, like the golden grid on the forestage or the neon-light frame surrounding singers when they sing a particularly important aria.

On the other hand, the musical production, based on a cast of strong, exciting singers, was brilliant. Le Concert d’Astrée, a period ensemble regularly working at the Opéra de Lille, gave a thoroughly enjoyable performance, with reasonable tempi and appropriately nuanced dynamics. The conductor, Emmanuelle Haïm, was particularly attentive to the singers, breathing with them, waiting for them, conducting with arms, hands, her whole body. It was a pleasure to watch, as well as to hear.

Jeanine De Bique was extremely successful in her prise de rôle as Rodelinda. Her bright top was supported by a bronzed middle voice, which gave depth to her display of emotions. She cut a truly tragic figure, and one could hear Mozart and Italian bel canto in her future. She judiciously lightened her voice for melancholy effect in the lamentation arias, while still being forceful in the interpretation of the outraged queen, mistress of her own destiny.

Bertarido was Tim Mead, whose countertenor was sweet and angelic, smooth over the entire range. His opening aria “Dove sei”, where Bertarido, having arrived in Milan in secret, pines for his beloved wife, was heartbreaking. Still, his furore aria “Vivi tiranno” at the end was delivered with an explosion of coloratura and a confidence worthy of Senesino, the castrato for which the role was created.

The cast included another countertenor in the role of Unulfo, Bertarido’s friend, sung by the young and upcoming Jakub Józef Orliński. His voice is unusually high and smooth in the top register, agile, without any sign of stress. The director used him as comic relief at times, having him dance and prowl around in silly walks. He is quite physical, so his performance was natural and appreciated by the audience. But Rodelinda is a pure tragedy, not tragi-comic, and this mixture of genres seemed out of place.

The young contralto Avery Amereau was Eduige; Bellorini transformed her into a femme fatale, which she portrayed with ease and spontaneity. Her voice is unusual and remarkable, with a true contralto quality. She is at ease in the low register, with good projection, and she has good high notes and agile coloratura. It will be interesting to see how her voice develops in the future.

Andrea Mastroni was Garibaldo, a one-dimensional bad guy; his bass was remarkably elegant and enjoyable; another young singer whose career will be worth following. Grimoaldo, the usurper, was sung by tenor Benjamin Hulett; his voice was perhaps a bit too light for the role; his best moment was the sweet aria “Pastorello”.