tue 22/09/2020

Rodelinda, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music | reviews, news & interviews

Rodelinda, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Rodelinda, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

A stylish new production of a Handel classic deserves to enter the repertoire

A highlight of the London Handel Festival’s annual season is the opera, generally chosen from one of the dustier, more spidery corners of the composer’s repertoire. What a surprise then to see Rodelinda taking its turn this year. An undisputed classic, it’s also the opera that played perhaps the biggest part in reviving Handel’s fortunes on the stage in the 20th century. With aria after aria of generous and dramatic vocal writing and plenty of crowd-pleasing numbers, it’s also a natural showcase for the young singers of the Royal College of Music – perhaps the only ones having more fun than their audience last night.

A tale of usurpation, rivalry and dynastic intrigue, Rodelinda sits alongside the likes of Orlando and Alcina at the rather more intense end of Handel’s opera seria canon. With no magic or light-hearted subplots and barely any disguises, it’s a work that lends itself to modern adaptation, offering the composer’s most sincere and plausible canvas for contemporary emotion.

While preserving the original warring city states of Milan and Pavia, the visual aesthetic of David Fielding’s production is straight out of the Eastern Bloc, all camouflage-clad military leaders, corrugated iron bunkers and women in fur coats smoking too many cigarettes. Violence here is both casual and natural, lending credibility to the more melodramatic twists of Corneille’s plot.

A_315_Ben_Williamson_cChris_ChristodoulouIt all makes for a rather elegant transposition, with only the libretto lagging behind in the 18th century. The final barrier to psychological realism, it’s almost impossible to watch these terribly serious characters stop in their murderous steps and sing a charming little metaphorical ballad about a shepherd, a babbling brook or a gentle breeze, without it becoming inadvertently and exceedingly funny. There are various remedies to this, tongue-in-cheek camp chief among them, but I’m not sure that Fielding’s straight-faced solution of tempering each wistful shepherd with wanton destruction of furniture or brandishing of weaponry quite came off.

Emotional sincerity, however, was something we had in excess: the swaggering attack of the London Handel Orchestra’s Overture under the direction of Laurence Cummings; the plaintive obbligato flute solo in “Ombre, piante”; the impassioned grief of Eleonor Dennis’s Rodelinda. Rather stiff in last year’s Il Pastor Fido (though vocally strong), Dennis has matured into her stage presence, delivering a performance of serious vocal class that set the curve for her colleagues. Dispatching the likes of “Mio caro bene” and “Se’l mio duol” with emotive skill and silken tone, it was in the punchier coloratura of  “L’empio rigor” and the glorious “Morrai, si” that she really showed her quality and new-found control.

Rosie Aldridge, another familiar face to LHF audiences, returned as the feisty Eduige. If at times I could have done with just a little more front to her vocal attack (particularly for the colourful “Lo faro”) it would be hard to fault her technique; hers is one of the most attractive young mezzo voices currently making its way through the ranks.

A_266_Rupert_Enticknap_cChris_ChristodoulouWith women this strong it would have been lovely to hear the men match them, but last night it just wasn’t to be. David Well’s Grimoaldo was something of a technical misfire, with coloratura coming in and out of focus and a bit too much Puccini about the top notes for authenticity. More solid but scarcely more exciting was Samuel Evans’s henchman Garibaldo, leaving the honours to be split between Rupert Enicknap’s Unulfo (pictured above) - who was unsettled by an awkwardly rushed tempo for “Fra tempeste” but whose projected tone and musicality produced some of the best recitative of the evening - and Ben Williamson’s Bertarido (pictured top). Smooth and evenly produced throughout his (considerable) range, Williamson’s voice is an impressive one. As yet, however, it is more reliably beautiful than expressive, failing until Act III to bring anything like the necessary conviction to the (admittedly rather wet) figure of Bertarido.

Saving a twist of the knife for the final unsettling moments of the lieto fine, Fielding manages to make painful sense of one of Handel’s more awkward operatic resolutions. It’s a production that deserves another outing, and with voices of such promise and an orchestra of such quality, it's one that has got me not a little impatient for the arrival of Glyndebourne’s new Rinaldo later this year.

Comments

Oh dear! How terribly remiss for the libretto of an 18th century opera to lag behind in the 18th c. Whatever next? Well, perhaps electric guitars and drums to could be added to Handel's orchestration to make sure the music doesn't lag behind in the 18th c. too. And how about casting Lily Allen as Eduige. That should help with dragging the piece further still from the 18th c. Who is the Alexandra Coughlin who writes all this bullshit?

Brian - I don't think it was a criticism, merely an observation. Who are you anyway?

Someone appears to have edited my last comment by taking out my observation/opinion on Mr Robins because it contained a sphinctal reference of comparative restraint. Yet the final (and totally inaccurate) final sentence of Mr Robins' comment remains?? Go figure.

Mr Robins is a very rude person, I won't say gentleman (and inaccurate, too - he can't even be bothered to spell the writer's surname correctly). And I'm surprised the insult remained. But yours is quite strong enough without the extra retort, don't you think? Always answer a boor with 'more in sadness than in anger', perhaps. And there are lots of boors ready to come out with their bile in the comments here. I agree, by the way, with the commentor who complained about the impenetrable 'captcha' words. I've found that when I only get it approximately right, it still works.

She was pointing out the difficulties of staging an eighteenth century opera. Was Brian Robins related to a male cast member?

If I could point those as similarly irritated by Brian Robins' offering to his Wikipedia entry in which he is cheerfully dismissed as a failed performer who made his mark (if that is an appropriate way to put it) writing about Glee in the US. I don't think we should waste much more energy on the pompous little man.

I believe that Mr Robins is setting up what logicians call a "straw man" argument, seeing as though he takes Ms Coghlan to task for something she didn't imply, much less claim. It's a tactic similar to infants wetting their pants in crowded supermarkets when mum won't buy them lollies, and almost as dignified.

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