Friday 27 October 2017

Rebecca Evans and Tim Mead in Handel's Rodelinda at ENO

Handel: Rodelinda - Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead, Juan Sancho - English National Opera 2017 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Handel: Rodelinda - Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead, Juan Sancho - English National Opera 2017 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Handel Rodelinda; Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead, Juan Sancho, Neal Davies, Susan Bickely, Christopher Lowrey, dir: Richard Jones / Donna Stirrup, cond: Christian Curnyn; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 26 2017 Star rating: 4.0
The production might be designed for those who dislike Handel opera, but the performances are astonishing

Handel: Rodelinda - Neal Davies - English National Opera 2017 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Neal Davies (Photo Jane Hobson)
Richard Jones' gothick schlock-horror production of Handel's Rodelinda has returned to English National Opera at the London Coliseum (26 October 2017), with some of the same cast as 2014 but with notable differences. New to the production were Tim Mead as Bertarido, Juan Sancho as Grimoaldo, Neal Davies as Garibaldo and Christopher Lowrey as Unolfo, returning to their roles were Rebecca Evans as Rodelinda, Susan Bickley as Eduige and Matt Casey as Flavio. Christian Curnyn conducted, and Donna Stirrup was the revival director.

The production seems to be substantially unchanged from 2014 (see my original review), except that during Rodelinda and Bertarido's duet which concludes Act Two the scenery now moves in relative silence rather than distracting from the music. Re-reading my original review, I find that my thoughts on this revival pretty much unchanged.

Richard Jones has replaced Handel and Haym's dramaturgy with one of his own, where the rather non-linear emotion-based baroque drama is now taken over by a linear 1950s film noir narrative which resorts to comedy to smooth over any perceived awkwardnesses in the narrative. Handel's drama in his opera seria works well if taken seriously (as James Conway has shown in a number of his productions for English Touring Opera), but Richard Jones has essentially given us a production for those who do not really like baroque opera - funny, hyperactive, restless, with a tendency to pull focus in most of the main arias. And the audience loved it, Jones' Handel clearly speaks to audience goers in the way that a more purist production would seem not to.

What is striking is that within these limitations, Jones and Stirrup achieve such remarkably intense performances from all the cast.

Handel: Rodelinda - Christopher Lowrey - English National Opera 2017 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Christopher Lowrey (Photo Jane Hobson)
Seasoned Handelians, everyone deliver technically assured accounts of their roles. Rebecca Evans remained completely unphased by the production's attempts to upstage her, and ensured our continued attention by the sheer intensity and daring of her performance. Occasionally she seemed to rely a little too much her trade-maker liquid extruded tone, but she encompassed the quiet pathos and virulent hate of the role, giving us a three dimensional portrait.

She was fully balanced by Tim Mead's powerful Bertarido. Mead was fully equal to the role's pathetic quality, giving us much assured and beautiful singing whilst giving a sense of the character's dangerous quality and making Bertarido very sexy too. It is only towards the end of the opera that Bertarido gets his mojo back and is allowed the sort of virtuoso aria that castratos expected, and Mead certainly did not disappoint here. In their Act Two duet, Mead and Evans matched each other for intensity, creating a powerful moment when time stopped.

Juan Sancho made an interesting Grimoaldo. Singing in highly creditable, expressive English, he has quite a lithe, narrow focused voice which he used with technical brilliance. Occasionally I felt the he did not quite have the amplitude to fill the open spaces of the Coliseum, but his tone quality had an interesting cast to it which helped to emphasise the character's neuroses. Neal Davies brought out the thuggish quality in Garibaldo, seemingly enjoying the excessive violence whilst singing in an assured manner, but I can't help feeling that the character could have been more dangerous. Unfortunately for Christopher Lowrey, Unolfo's arias rather hold up the action than contribute to it, but he made Unolfo's arias count through a combination of technical assurance and sheer personality.

Susan Bickley repeated her finely sung Eduige, never disappointing in her expressive singing and almost managing to rise above Jones' conception of Eguige as a desperate middle-aged woman. Matt Casey again was highly physically expressive in this radical re-interpretation of the silent role of Flavio, Handel & Haym's child transformed into a vicious young man.

Handel: Rodelinda - Susan Bickley, Rebecca Evans - English National Opera 2017 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Handel: Rodelinda - Susan Bickley, Rebecca Evans - English National Opera 2017 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Christian Curnyn conducted with his usual assurance, getting some remarkably stylish playing from the ENO Orchestra. It remains remarkable how the band is able to transform itself into a confident Baroque ensemble, giving us something which combines elements period style with the necessary vibrancy to fill the Coliseum.

This revival remains essential listening for the strong performances from the wonderfully balanced cast, embedded in a production which is designed to entertain those who find Handelian opera seria something of a trial.

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