With his new production of Rodelinda for English National Opera, director Richard Jones moves the action from 7th century Milan to the 1940s. While Handel’s story of love, betrayal and power works well in the new setting, Jones’ ideas about the opera make this a confusing, and at times frustrating, production.

Rebecca Evans (Rodelinda) © Clive Barda
Rebecca Evans (Rodelinda)
© Clive Barda

One of the big themes Jones seemed to want to explore was how we show our relationships to the outside world and how we signify that we belong to another. Jones opts for tattoos. The characters all have the names of their significant others tattooed somewhere on their bodies. As we know, tattooing the names of loved ones about your person can be a risky business. Love is a fleeting thing, never more so than in Baroque opera, where changes of affection and loyalty, even outright betrayals, are rampant. Even though a tattoo is permanent, love seldom is. Unfortunately, what seemed like a relevant topic to explore gets lost after the first act. Only once did Jones use tattoos to show how the characters change their minds about their love interests; as Grimoaldo broke off his engagement to Eduige, a large E on his forearm was crossed out and replaced with “Rodelinda” across his back.

Although Rodelinda is an “opera seria”, it doesn’t mean that it has to be entirely devoid of humour. It does not mean, however, that the entire opera should have slapstick humour as its defining characteristic. Unfortunately, this production veered too much down this route, especially in Act III. It seemed that Jones was trying to look at how strange Baroque opera plots are to modern sensibilities. Unfortunately, it descended into ridicule with highly dramatic moments - such as Bertarido mistakenly stabbing Unulfo - being greeted with gales of laughter from the audience.

Richard Burkhard (Garibaldo), John Mark Ainsley (Grimoaldo) and Iestyn Davies (Bertarido) © Clive Barda
Richard Burkhard (Garibaldo), John Mark Ainsley (Grimoaldo) and Iestyn Davies (Bertarido)
© Clive Barda

Yet the production did have qualities to recommend it. When Jones chose to take the opera seriously, it gave way to some magical moments. Especially noteworthy was “Io t’abbraccio”, the duet that closes Act II, where time stood still as Rodelinda and Bertarido separated and left the stage, leaving behind an ever more paranoid Grimoaldo.

The singing was uneven, the whole cast taking a while to properly warm up, both vocally and dramatically. Rebecca Evans had some very good moments as Rodelinda, especially the duet with Iestyn Davies’ Bertarido, but also a magnificently haunting “Se'l mio duol” in Act III. She was somewhat less impressive in the bravura arias. Although her coloratura was clear enough, in the very fast arias it seemed somewhat laboured and could have been more crisply articulated. Despite some occasionally excellent singing, I never really felt like I was watching a title heroine. Evans’ performance seemed uncommitted and only in “Spietati, io vi giurai” did the we truly see the fiercely proud queen of the Lombards.

Iestyn Davies (Bertarido) and John Mark Ainsley (Grimoaldo) © Clive Barda
Iestyn Davies (Bertarido) and John Mark Ainsley (Grimoaldo)
© Clive Barda

Iestyn Davies, as Bertarido, Rodelinda’s husband, showed a wonderful sense of lyricism. His laments were sung with heartbreaking pathos, especially his opening aria, “Dove sei, amato bene?”. He displayed some fantastic coloratura, especially in his final aria, “Vivi, tiranno!”. The character of Bertarido is almost surprisingly passive, only really rising to the occasion when he finally kills Garibaldo. Davies managed to retain that passivity whilst at the same time making Bertarido reasonably interesting as a character.

As Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, Susan Bickley sang well, navigating her arias with ease. Her voice was a tad light for the role and I would have liked more character in her portrayal. John Mark Ainsley’s Grimoaldo was effortlessly stylish, but the characterisation was somewhat lacking. Jones had him evolve into a kind of Disney villain, complete with giant sticks of dynamite à la Looney Tunes, very different from his nuanced vocal portrayal of an ever more paranoid man. Ainsley dispatched his coloratura effortlessly.

Christian Curnyn has great credentials as a conductor of Baroque music, but it became very apparent that the ENO Orchestra are no Handel specialists. The playing was colourless and lacked shape, especially in the faster numbers. Slower arias fared better, but there was a general lack of aggression and attack.

Despite starting out well, Jones' ideas soon gave way to humour bordering on the ridiculous. There are still a few magic moments and some very good singing, but this production is hugely disappointing. 

**111