Rodelinda, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2017

The libretto for Handel’s Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi (queen of the longbeards, or Lombards) was written by the remarkable Nicola Francesca Haym, musician, theatre manager, performer, and even numismatist who wrote the first work on the ancient coins in the British Museum. Its huge clarity, particularly in Amanda Holden’s excellent translation, brings to life a story of jealousy, naked ambition and agonising distress in seventh century Milan.

Rodelinda, Bertarido, Grimoaldo, all images ENO/ Jane Hobson

The genius of Handel, who achieved “the greatest effects through the simplest means” — according to Beethoven — does the rest. An early aria, Bertarido’s lament Dove sei, remained in the repertoire even as Handel’s operas lay largely neglected, its major key reflecting the noble grief of a king whose throne has been usurped in battle by Grimoaldo. Betrothed to Bertarido’s sister Eduige, he desires the legitimacy of marrying the widowed queen Rodelinda, but unbeknownst to her, Bertarido has sent word to his friend Unulfo that he remains alive. Yet Grimoaldo is torn and indecisive, faced with Rodelinda’s strength of purpose when in a high stakes gamble she proposes he kill her son and heir to the throne. No such qualms affect the nastier villain of this story, Garibaldo, killed in the penultimate scene before Rodelinda sings her final, happy aria, followed by a duet with her husband and general rejoicing for a clearer, brighter dawn born of virtue.

Eduige and Rodelinda

Richard Jones’s production converts this story, fleshed out by wonderful arias, to the modern world of minor ruling despots, where an Act III coup de théâtre sees the gigantic statue of king Bertarido destroyed in a huge explosion. Premiered in early 2014, this is its first London revival following a hugely successful outing to the Bolshoi Opera in Russia, where it won an award for Best Opera Production. The excellent staging in rather grim adjoining rooms with cctv, finds its Act II turning point in a modern bar with neon lights, where Bertarido is recognised by his sister Eduige and explains the reasons for faking his death.

Grimoaldo and Bertarido

This revival featured four of the seven original cast with Rebecca Evans once again a well-nuanced Rodelinda, whose second lament Ombre, piante in Act I was delivered with exquisite beauty. In the wittily mimed role of her son Flavio, Matt Casey performed with excellent musicality, Christopher Lowrey made a sympathetic Unulfo, and Susan Bickley a very strong Eduige with superb diction. Opera in English demands great diction and among the new cast members none did it better than the robust Garibaldo of Neal Davies. The unusual (for Handel) tenor role of Grimoaldo was taken by Juan Sancho, who matched persistence and distress with fine lyricism, and Tim Mead produced nobility and fiery emotion as Rodelinda’s rightful husband Bertarido.

A terrific performance under the baton of Christian Curnyn, deservedly cheered by the audience.

Performances continue on various dates until November 15 — for details click here.

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