The intriguing publicity image of Rodelinda with wild auburn ringlets in a “Madonna and child” image on the side of the tour bus promised much, and Scottish Opera made a wise choice in selecting Handel’s concise court drama to tour widely across Scotland this autumn. With just six singers and a particularly compelling arrangement for harpsichord, cello continuo and violin by Derek Clark, this production allowed the company to showcase not only its Emerging Artist singers but also new faces in the production team.

Andrew McTaggart and Sarah Power as Garibaldo & Rodelinda © KK Dundas
Andrew McTaggart and Sarah Power as Garibaldo & Rodelinda
© KK Dundas

Rodelinda is a complicated tale of siblings feuding over the kingdoms of Milan and Pavia, dastardly plots and love lost and found. Getting to grips with the particularly tangled web of characters was aided by a helpful family tree in the programme. During the overture, the entire cast entertained us with an amusing shadow play bringing us up-to-date on the story so far: King of Milan Bertarido has been usurped by Grimoaldo and has fled the kingdom, presumed dead, leaving his pregnant wife Rodelinda at the mercy of Grimoadlo, who now wants to seize the throne by marriage. However, Bertarido is very much alive and has returned in disguise to rescue his family and regain the throne.

Where would the main characters be without their more astute minders? Holding the balance of power and driving the story, Unuflo (Reno Troilus) restrained an impetuous Bertarido, and Garibaldo (Andrew McTaggart) darkly plotted Grimaldo’s actions. Both provided plenty of comic moments, particularly when it became clear that Bertarido’s sister Eudige and Garibaldo were romantically inclined.

Director Chris Rolls handled the production well, ensuring musical continuity with a continuous flow of characters on stage telling the story effectively. Set initially on and around a small period set with traditional shell-shaped footlights, the scenery soon split in half and was arranged in various configurations, effectively lit by Mark Howland to depict court interiors, exteriors and prison. Costumes were modern-day smart business-wear, apart from Bertarido, who was disguised in rags and suitably filthy.

My initial worries that the reduced orchestration might sound monochromatic were soon dispelled, as musical director Susannah Wapshott, conducting from her tiny harpsichord, brought an entire palette of colour to the score and moved things along briskly. Because there were only three players, ornamentation in the da capo arias was positively encouraged, and Gabi Maas on violin not only produced some lovely flourishes, but at one point she played a fiendishly complicated-looking Swedish Nyckelharpa which created a lovely mellow sound, and immediately won it a new fan.

Sung in an entertaining English translation by Andrew Jones (and without supertitles), diction from all the singers was perfect. Irish soprano Sarah Power, as flame-haired as the publicity shots suggested, relished the central role and sang with a beautifully pure voice. It was also exciting to hear two counter-tenors on stage: Andrew Radley as Bertarido, and his counsellor Reno Troilus in a spirited performance as the perpetually worried Unuflo, who almost comes to a sticky end. Bad man Garibaldo, menacingly sung by Andrew McTaggart, certainly did. Dressed in a gangster pin-stripe waistcoat and trousers, and quick to pull a gun from his coat, he threatened Rodelinda by snatching her infant away and forcing her to agree to marry Grimaldo, sung by tenor Richard Rowe in a sharp suit. In a highly amusing tableau, McTaggart was at one point straddled by a feisty Sioned Gwen Davies as Eudige in no-nonsense outfit of matching pencil skirt, shoulder-padded jacket and tights all in a loud plum colour.

In Handel’s da capo arias there is always a challenge to make the repeat section different, and here, while there was ornamentation, it was subtle rather than showy. There were plenty of stand-out moments including Bertarido’s aria on discovering his own memorial as he movingly crossed the stage and took his repeat right down to an emotional quiet, drawing the audience right into the moment. At the heart of the opera there was the exquisite duet between Rodelinda and Bertarido, soprano and counter-tenor voices intertwining – the musical highlight of the evening.

Taking a temperamental harpsichord from Dumfries to Stornaway and back can’t have been easy. Scottish Opera should be very proud of this small but high-quality production – a reflection not just on the singers and ensemble players, but also the technical staff who accompany the tour, continuing until early November.

****1