fri 14/06/2024

Rodelinda, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Rodelinda, English National Opera

Rodelinda, English National Opera

Richard Jones' tragicomic mobster Handel, superbly cast, shows us what opera can do

From heartbreak to vendetta: Rebecca Evans's magnificent Rodelinda with son Flavio (Matt Casey)All images by Clive Barda

If they asked me, I could write a book about the way one number in Richard Jones’s ENO production of Handel’s Rodelinda – the only duet, after 18 arias, and nearly two hours into the action – looks, sounds and moves.

Because it doesn’t happen often in opera that all the elements combine for total musical theatre that stuns: in this case, two great voices – Rebecca Evans’s soprano and Iestyn Davies’s countertenor – at what sounds like the peak of their stylish careers, an orchestra under the exceptional Christian Curnyn totally fused with what’s happening on stage, and an ingenious set from Jeremy Herbert, singularly lit by the infallible Mimi Jordan Sherin, that not only does its stuff silently but tear-jerkingly underlines the very core of Jones’ concept.

Which is, I take it, that at this point, just when two people really (re)connect, they’re torn apart by the unstoppable vendetta of warring clans. For most of the three acts, six of the seven characters locked in internecine combat are on top of each other. It’s supposed to be the Lombards of Milan, but it feels more like the Camorra of Naples, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria or the Sicilian Mafia in a surprisingly deft, even elegant portrayal of blingy, raw and often stupid power struggles, with absurd violence lurking round every jokey corner. Try and escape the family, and you’re walking or running on the spot (three treadmills at the front of the stage). In the inescapable mansion, there are two rooms, an impersonal capo headquarters training its cameras on the grubby cell stage left.Design for ENO Rodelinda, photo by Clive BardaHow does this work in Handel's favour? Well, it means that whenever one voice is dealing with its da capo aria - and there's an awful lot of setting up with standard numbers in Act One, as usual with the composer - there’s help on hand from the relatives to flesh it out, back it up, contradict: a much better solution than random, distracting action going on in the background, as has so often been the tendency in Handel stagings. So the highlighted singer doesn’t always have to do all the business, though we see Evans’ presumed widow Rodelinda flinging usurper Grimoaldo’s jewels around the room and pouring coffee on a proferred stole; later, John Mark Ainsley as the tyrant urged on by his nasty sidekick to dispatch the husband who’s still alive expertly tackles a bravura aria wielding knife, blowtorch and explosives while he still hesitates to kill his victim.

Iestyn Davies in ENO's RodelindaCurnyn sets up a sleek, muscular sound which the classy principals are more than able to emulate, filling the Coliseum with authentic Handelian style and none of the disappearing notes you get with pipsqueak early music singers (I’ve heard too many of those over the past month). Evans, unrecognisable like Ainsley in black wig, the black putative widow to the life, has help from Handel and Amanda Holden’s bold translation from the start but still gives a special kick to Rodelinda's opening “I have lost him”. Here’s a queen of lyric sopranos as lethal matriarch, stunningly abetted by young Matt Casey as her silent but far from passive son Flavio (his mimes of what his mother will do to slimy mafia henchman Garibaldo – Richard Burkhard, a slick operator – when she’s married the master steal the limelight).

Ainsley provides wit and even warmth as the inept capo, “Rodelinda” at one point tattooed on his back as well as in his heart, his 1 o'clock pastoral of repentance up there with similar earlier numbers for queen and resurrected victim. And is there a more sheerly beautiful and more musicianly countertenor sound than Iestyn Davies’s, now with added edge and intensity, in Bertarido’s isolated musings? Those have the usual Jones symmetry, adding to the balance of photo-campaigning and weapons of individual destruction: the first is at the foot of Bertarido's fascistic monument in the first act which shatters in the third - Evans, Davies and Ainsley pictured below - while the second is a drink-drowned sorrowful meditation beneath neon gigantism in Act Two's garish bar central, pictured above. Let's also not forget the perfect timing for Steven Williams' two video projections, all the better for their spare use.

Scene from Act Three of ENO's Rodelinda, photo by Clive BardaAt first it seemed like a cruel ploy to give Davies a sidekick of similar vocal pitch but lesser tonal lustre. Yet Christopher Ainslie’s Unulfo fulfils some terrific physical demands from Jones and eventually hits vocal silver. There's also a touching moment when he reveals his own name-tattoo to match the others. Last but not least, Susan Bickley's opportunistic bitch sister Eduige manages to keep in vocal focus throughout despite tottering around on high heels. Costume designer Nicky Gillibrand must have had fun with the ladies' frocks.

Ultimately, it’s a total team effort, providing image after image you won’t forget. And that duet isn’t the only limelight-holder: see how brilliantly Jones sets up a husband-wife reunion just before it which could have been thrown away in recitative. A first-night audience unusually vocal in its approval for each number was stilled at the end of Rodelinda’s lilting aria: Bertarido throws open her cell door not after, but on, the last chord. Now that’s clever stagecraft. So is one solution to scene-changing which you anticipate drowning out a sensitive repeat. Evans’s last big number, the lament we’ve all been waiting for, moves from quiet heartbreak to mother-son vendetta oath as Curnyn once again swells the bass-rich orchestra to match the soprano’s heroic-dramatic escalation. This, again, is what opera can do that straight theatre can’t, but it rarely happens. "Sheer genius" was the buzz word at the second interval, and genius it remains right through to the last outrageous gambit.

A surprisingly deft, even elegant portrayal of blingy, raw and often stupid power struggles


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article


Can anyone please spare a word for poor Unulfo? By the end he's turned into a zombie and NOBODY cares. He did save the day (and when he quietly reminded his heroic sacrifice, zero comedy intended, the entire audience started laughing uncontrollably) but who cares? Let's be the archetypical Italian (read: "La Dolce Vita" meets "Malena", nothing gets northern of Rome apparently, not even if you're telling the story of the Queen of the Longobards!) and celebrate a new union with a blood pact. I'm not even going to continue my rant (people close to me heard enough last night) on how tacky the tattoos, the spitting, the marinara-sauce-stained-undershirts...were, cause I honestly wouldn't know where to start. I just have one question: why is Flavio, brilliantly played by Mark Casey, not mentioned on the ENO website ( ? He's possibly the only credible act in the 3.5 hours of tediousness we have to endure to get to the end of what turned out to be more comic than tragic.

Try reading the review again, Tori B, or is 'vocal silver' not enough for you? Anyway, your point about 'poor Unulfo' is also the production's. And to judge from the tweets, you're in a minority in finding anything tedious about this sensational show.

ToriB, I'm not sure where you were last night but if you were not left wrung out and stupefied after the sublime duet that closes Act II then is suggest you are possibly incapable of understanding human emotion.

It's Matt Casey!

How I wish I were able to see and hear a performance of this production. Short of that, this is one rip-roaring review, making the case not only for this particular production but, by the examples in the last paragraph alone, for "what opera can do that straight theatre can’t, but it rarely happens . . .".

The star of the show rising way above the rest of the cast was Iestyn Davies. Rebecca Evans had her moments but the rest were adequate at best when judged by the highest standards. Richard Jones's production seemed at odds with what was happening musically and I often had to close my eyes to it to appreciate Handel's sublime music. Curnyn and the orchestra were in excellent form.

You're certainly entitled to your opinion, lockj, but I must protest the commonly held line about Handel's music being sublime (or even Rodelinda being among the very best throughout). To me a great deal of it is highly professional master-work but hardly anything in the first act is sublime IMO. Jones underlines the few numbers that truly are that.

I totally agree with you about this production. The singing of Iestyn Davies was extraordinary. But the production just impacted so negatively on the music and singing. Remember the punchbag? I love Handel to bits and will try any new production, but won't see this one again.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters