Love him or hate him Richard Jones is a meticulous and provocative director. He surely thinks through his productions and tends to vehemently stick to the ideas that underpin them. Saw his Rodelinda for ENO a week ago (his first Handel opera in 18 years) and still swirls around my head. His take on Handel is full of contradictions and theatricality, full of poetic moments and uncomfortable silliness.
For all his splashy visuals this production come through as thoughtful and wanting to pick an intellectual argument with its audience. Rodelinda’s role in this opera is thoroughly dissected. She becomes the object of fascination that is spied on by CCTV cameras. The play thing of destiny that threatens to crush her. But also the strong, virtuous mother that will fight to her last breath for her son and her social position. Despite the busy production, including some unnecessary projections in between scenes that are meant to introduce us to the next locale accompanied by very loud pre-recorded soundtrack and the three damned treadmills . The centre of the action never wavers far away from Rebecca Evans. She brings unique dignity and vigour to the part with spectacular singing.
Jones’ central visual motif is the presence of tattoos, to denote relationships and changes to the state of mind of the characters. Grimoaldo initially sports one with the name of Eduige and as he starts falling for Rodelinda he quickly gets it covered up and a huge new one across his back spells the name of his captive and under surveillance prey. The exploration of the use of body marking to express love, being a great match for the production’s setting in Italy in the 1950s. The time when tattooing started to break free from the confines of prisons and the navy and started to denote a fashionable tribe badge. This aesthetic choice even adorns the artwork on the programme cover.
In this opera people that are brought together by circumstances and breeding are brutally separated by politics and animosity. The indelible mark on one’s skin becomes an act of emotional engagement and an attempt to brand one’s feeling for all to see. That mix of public display and vying for attention is at the heart of this work. As the central power triangle of Rodelinda, Bertatido and Grimoaldo is motivated by a potent mix of sex and political power. The impressive sets by Jeremy Herbert (especially the impossibly phallic monument to Bertarido) convey a polished, design conscious Italy of the post Musolini era, a perfect setting for a work that is so enamoured with the surface of power and the nature of love.
The only seriously problematic choices were the use of slapstick particularly in the last Act, turning violent confrontations into a Tom and Jerry cartoon fight, getting hold of progressively bigger weapons until the ultimate cartoon weapon shows up to the chagrin of the audience…the oversized dynamite roll that is used to explode Bertarido’s monument. A diversion into farce that undid many poignant moments of the previous two hours. The other issue was the presence of the three treadmills at the front of the stage used most of the time as a cliche to animate when the different characters chased one another and seemed to not be that integrated in the overall design by being obstructive and at times becoming just immobile pedestals creating an obstacle course for the singers. Maybe an aspect to re-think before the staging moves on to The Bolshoi in the near future.
The two moments of absolute beauty that will remain indelible in my memory is Rodelinda’s mourning aria Ombre, piante, urne funeste, staged in the simplest fashion possible putting the focus on Evans and her hear wrenching, achingly gorgeous singing. As she laments the supposed loss of her husband at the base of his monument. One of those very special moments that make the world feel immobile, the ultimate declaration of sadness and loss.
But the greatest moment of this production came at the end of Act Two with Io t’abbraccio man and wife have finally come together once more but the world around them has irrevocably changed. Jones’ had the ingenious idea to use the separated three part set as the material manifestation of the mind of the two singing characters and the mute presence of the crushed Grimoaldo in the centre. As the two lovers sing their rooms move apart to the side of the stage until they disappear into the grey walls leaving the pathetic figure of the fallen dictator isolated and broken. An image so potent and when accompanied by such wonderful, passionate singing and Handel’s ethereal music became a great example of how opera above most art forms can express emotion in the most direct way possible, devastating in its potency and yet life affirming.
The two tremendous vocal triumphs by Evans and Davies were underpinned by the light voiced purity of Christopher Ainslie who created a notable contrast to the more muscular sound of Davies, relieving any possibility of counter-tenor fatigue. Despite all the involved acting by John Mark Ainsley sounded uncomfortable on the higher lying parts of his role, making some of his arias feel like hard work. Susan Bickley acquitted herself nicely with her usual colourful, characterful singing.
The conducting by Christian Curnyn was of the high standard, we have come to expect from him. Well judged tempi and a definite rapport with the cast. It was a shame the pit wasn’t raised slightly as it was done for Castor and Pollux but I’d think it has to do with sharing the venue with Rigoletto on alternate nights. But it was a delight to have Handel’s glorious score being played with such fluency and love. And in a production that despite any farcical diversions was emotionally potent and a great exponent of what the ENO does best, though-provoking director’s opera. If you can make it, well worth catching the handful of performances left or pop over to Radio 3 and listen to the live broadcast from last Saturday.
Some tweets from the evening