This week, the annual London Handel Festival, now in its 34th year, opened with a new production of his opera Rodelinda. One of the missions of the festival in recent years has been to explore the composer’s rarer operas including Il Pastor Fido, Alessandro and Atalanta, but this year they chose one of his more popular works, first performed in 1725 – the same year in which he also produced his masterpieces Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano.

© Chris Christodoulou
© Chris Christodoulou

The story of Rodelinda, although loosely based on a historical power struggle between the kingdoms of Milan and Paviah in seventh-century Lombardy, is essentially a tale about Rodelinda’s fidelity to her husband Bertarido even when faced with death. Its plot is not quite as complicated as some of Handel’s other operas!

The production is double cast from the young and talented singers of the Royal College of Music International Opera School, and in Monday’s cast, soprano Eleanor Dennis (Rodelinda) and countertenor Ben Williamson (Bertarido) were outstanding in their roles, originally composed for the great stars Cuzzoni and Senesino. Over the years I have heard many talented countertenors such as Tim Mead and Chritopher Ainslie making their debuts at London Handel Festival, and I am sure Ben Williamson, with his secure technique and vocal colour, is a talent to watch. The first act began rather nervously but the intensity rose when Ben Williamson appeared on stage with Bertarido’s first aria “Dove sei”, and subsequently Eleanor Dennis sang her “Ombre, piante” and also her revenge aria "Morrai, si" with passion and good control of her high register. Some of her ornamentation in the da capo section was spectacular. Tenor David Webb, who played Grimoaldo, was not as strong vocally and lacked the presence required for this dramatically crucial role, although he managed to inject some emotion to his colourful aria “Tra sospetti” in Act 3. Eduige was competently sung by mezzo-soprano Rosie Aldridge with her warm tone, and Rupert Enticott’s Unulfo was sung with sensitivity and care. Vocally impressive was the baritone Samuel Evans who played the role of Garibaldo (the evil advisor to Grimoaldo) with conviction and relish.

Personally, I felt the staging was a disappointment. David Fielding, the renowned set designer and director, attempted to update the story to a modern conflict zone – somewhere like Kosovo under the rule of military forces – but the analogy with modern-day Serbs and Kosovans didn’t seem entirely appropriate for the story about a woman’s honour. The story unfolds in a military barracks and the sets were serviceable, enabling quick scene changes between Grimoaldo’s office, officer’s room (with a water cooler in the corner!) or outside the barracks.

What I found most unsatisfying, especially because the singing was generally fine, was that the singers were not well directed and they seemed diffident in their body language. Especially the two women, Rodelinda and Eduige, were not given a full personality, and during their arias, they sometimes seemed to slip out of their character. The men were slightly better, and the scene when Garibaldo and Unulfo tussle to get Grimoaldo on their side was well acted. Having Bertarido tortured in an interrogation room in the background as Grimoaldo sings his Act 3 aria gave depth to the scene and was an interesting idea. On the other hand, there were also a lot of meaningless motions, such as Bertarido changing into an orange prisoner’s suit during the most beautiful duet in Handel’s operatic repertoire. I am sure it was done in good faith to avoid static "stand and deliver" singing, but I didn't think it was effective.

The experienced London Handel Orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by the Music Director Laurence Cummings, played with spirit and verve. There were beautiful violin solos from the leader Adrian Butterfield and a graceful flute solo by Neil McLaren from one of the side boxes. The bassoon gave a plaintive air to Rodelinda’s grieving aria in Act 3. The continuo section deserves high praise too, especially the imaginative playing by the harpsichordists and the lovely harmonies in the intimate scenes from the theorbo (David Miller).

The orchestra will be appearing throughout the London Handel Festival which runs until 1 May. There is an exciting and diverse line-up of concerts and events at various venues which I'm sure will appeal to both Handelians and non-Handelians which you can find here.