Rodelinda, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, March 2014

First performed in 1725 this Handel opera, set in seventh century Milan, boasted the famous castrato Senesino as Berterido, husband of Rodelinda. He has lost his throne, is now presumed dead, and his position has been usurped by Grimoaldo, who has fallen in love with Rodelinda, despite being betrothed to Berterido’s sister Eduige.

The Act I set, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

The Act I set, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

Tastes have changed. We no longer have castrati, of course, but audiences today expect more in terms of drama and realistic acting — Senesino was reputedly hopeless in that regard — and director Richard Jones has wisely recast the action in the modern world of criminals, albeit with a touch of the ruling despot who has his statue torn down, or in this case blown up. Sets by Jeremy Herbert, well lit by Mimi Jordan Sherrin, cleverly illustrate divisions within the family and the sleazy, insubstantial world inhabited by power-hungry rogues.

Final scene: Rodelinda, Berterado, Grimoaldo

Final scene: Rodelinda, Bertarido, Grimoaldo

Yet there are two non-rogues here, Bertarido and the noble Unulfo, who once served under him and remains loyal. In the original these were castrati, replaced by excellent singing and diction by counter-tenors Iestyn Davies and Christopher Ainslie. Iestyn Davies gave a lift to the whole performance on his first appearance in Act I, when he returns to Milan in disguise, and his Act III aria on love and fate was beautifully delivered. Christopher Ainslie’s wonderful stage movement included jump turns, and the audience’s merriment during the duet after Bertarido mistakenly stabs him in Act III produced one of several light moments that the director made full use of.

Unulfo, Rodelinda, Flavio

Unulfo, Rodelinda, Flavio

The real demon in this piece is Garibaldo, who schemes to ascend the throne himself by marrying Eduige, and Richard Burkhard gave a nicely threatening performance of strong vocal clarity. He and the determined, yet eventually confused Grimoaldo, well sung by John Mark Ainsley, carry weapons that double as daggers and knuckle dusters, and longer knives and cleavers appear later. As for the women in this world of male posturing, where tattoos of loved ones are inscribed on the body, Susan Bickley gave a fine performance of Eduige, and Rebecca Evans a beautifully nuanced portrayal of the title character, her emotionally demonstrative voice giving huge pathos to Rodelinda’s lament in Act III. In the silent role of Rodelinda’s son Flavio, Matt Casey performed a wonderfully amusing mime when his mother threatens Garibaldo with death in Act I, and again when he pretends to kill Grimoaldo in Act III.

Can Grimoaldo kill Flavio?

Grimoaldo unable to kill Flavio — Garibaldo behind.

Beautifully sensitive conducting by Christian Curnyn, and Richard Jones’s take on this early eighteenth century opera, originally set in a seventh century world few of us understand, is first rate — don’t miss it.

There are seven further performances, ending on March 15 — for details click here.

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