This new production of one of the central Handel operas has had unstinted praise from every quarter, as far as I can tell. I find that I can stint a little when I think about it. For a start, I prefer his operas Julius Caesar and Tammerlano from the same period – I think they simply make more sense dramatically and that a lot of the music in both is more memorable. Of the great trilogy of 1724-1725 this, for me, is the less great opera – though still a very, very fine specimen. Also, I’m not entirely convinced by the updating to a modern day authoritarian state or dictatorship because it raises issues that Handel could not have dreamed of.
That said, I found the production’s concept perfectly acceptable and not the arbitrary imposition you sometimes can get with updatings because of two things: the music was brilliantly served; and there was a hint of the “theatre of the absurd” aspect of the original libretto. Far from being one in which the characters are convincing, as everyone wishes to proclaim, I personally find them singularly and awkwardly changeable in their motivations. Also, I felt that Rebecca Evans was not directed (or costumed) to show quite as much dignity and fierce pride as the part of Rodelinda requires. This said, I liked many things about the show – including the concept of making the son a grown up instead of a pitiable child. And there was enough genuine wit and wry irony to leaven the proceedings. I just would have liked a bit more.
But above all, I was bowled over by the musicality of the whole event. There was not a weak link in the ensemble and the orchestra was superb. Every singer is due praise not only for their sheer vocal splendour but for their characterizations (within the confines of the production). Above all, both the counter tenors were particularly memorable.
Iestyn Davies (who played Bertarido, the usurped king) and Christopher Ainslie (who played his loyal-unto-death servant, Unulfo) both have staggeringly lovely voices, amazing projection, and spectacular control over their instruments. They also know how to act. It was sheer pleasure just to bask in the sounds they made in their various arias. I predict both are due for stellar careers.
But major credit must also be given to Christian Cumyn, whose conducting was idiomatic and energetic throughout, with magnificent work in the slower arias in particular. My quibbles with the Richard Jones production are only to do with a slight difference of interpretation. I was brought up to see Handel as cheekier; the violence as Tom and Jerry cartoonish; the whole thing as more Theatre of the Absurd in its approach. The artifice is all – and in a way I would have preferred a more clearly artificial approach.
But if you once accept the given of this production, it is internally consistent; it makes perfect sense; and it is a platform for some of the best baroque singing and orchestral playing you could wish to hear. If you’re at all interested in Handel or in really beautiful singing, and not only in the counter-tenor range (Rebecca Evans, for one, has a stunning, clean voice, gleaming top notes and great theatrical sense), then hurry along to the English National Opera at the Coliseum.