You might not have heard of Rodelinda, but you will know some of the music, not only because Handel often repeated himself, but because several arias have come to us as stand-out pieces. ENO's new production is remarkable for the quality of singing, but perhaps less so the staging.
Grimoaldo has usurped the throne of Milan, ousting king Bertarido. Bertarido makes a comeback, supported by his loyal servant Unulfo and motivated by love for his wife Rodelinda and child Flavio. Meanwhile, Bertarido's sister, Enuige, was in love with Grimoaldo, but is being wooed by his conspirator Garibaldo, as part of a murderous plot to seize power for himself. The show restores Bertarido to power, with Rodelinda at his side and Flavio safe, kills Garibaldo and marries a contrite Grimoaldo to Enuige.
The overall concept is set in1950s mafia style. Most of the time the stage represents inside a building, with a 'control room', prison cell, and later extra rooms and a workshop. I imagine this made an excellent model box when the production was being planned, but in performance it was a bit odd. It had the benefit of keeping characters on stage for much of the show, allowing different things to be happening in different rooms, with clear movement between them. It did, however, resemble a doll's house. This gave an interpretative feel to the show as being a comment on the game-like nature (or indeed futility) of life and the ridiculousness of the storyline.
This comedy was played up through the production. Few opportunities for laughs are missed in what is mainly a tragic story. Flashes of humour can lighten a show, but they were taken to extremes in this production. Over-sized props (especially dynamite and swords) and oversized gestures detracted from the singing, but lead to a couple of very thought-provoking dramatic moments. Unulfo is wounded by Bertarido when rescuing him, and spends the rest of the act pathetically blood-stained. His plight heightens our awareness of the selfishness and cruelty of kings, as nobody tends to him, but he haunts the stage as an almost ghoulish spectre in such a comical fashion it doesn't work.
Flavio is brilliantly acted by Matt Casey, but is unconvincing as a dramatic construct. He is kept prisoner with Rodelinda and has his life threatened by Garibaldo, is used as a pawn in a dangerous power struggle between Rodelinda and Grimoaldo, yet does not utter a word. For this to be convincing he needs to be young, innocent and helpless. If he is the grown young man as portrayed here, why does he not have more agency? He grows throughout the show though, leading to a final tableau of him being poised to kill Grimoaldo. His father may be noble and forgiving, but in tragedies the violence is inevitably cyclical, spanning generations, and we see him acting out the 'vendetta' spelt by his knuckles on CCTV earlier in the show.
This CCTV is another awkward addition to the action. Grimoaldo is paralysed by his longing for Rodelinda and spends hours gazing at a monitor which relays the view through her mirror. Her cell, meanwhile, has three large cameras trained in on her. With all this surveillance, why does it take until the second act before Grimoaldo notices any of the action in there? At what point does Rodelinda realise that it is the mirror and not the cameras which are spying on her?
Tattoos also form a major theme in this production. Grimoaldo strips to the chest in order for Unulfo to tattoo Rodelinda's name across his back, while Enuige has Grimoaldo tattoed on her back, Unulfo has Bertarido on his, and Bertarido has Rodelinda up his arm. A giant statue of Bertarido also sports the arm tattoo, the broken stub of which provides the set for the penultimate scene-change, after it has been blown up. I know the British are known for their tattoos, but this obsessive marking seemed out of place, more akin to teenagers scrawling their names on exercises books, or in biro on their arms, than to serious adults. It sat awkwardly with the rest of the show, even if it did unify some aspects.
A final odd feature are the three travelators at the front of the stage. Used as escape routes, 'outdoors', or 'soliloquising' space, they seem incongruous in the setting. Their best use comes in the slapstick action towards the end of Act 3, as Garibaldo, Eniuge, Flavio and Bertarido race around with weapons.
The production is, unfortunately, unconvincing. The show, however, is most definitely worth seeing. With no chorus to break up the action or take the strain off the soloists, this is a tough performance for the seven stars and they are all magnificent. Special mention must go to Iestyn Davies and Rebecca Evans, who are sublime, true heirs of Senesino and Cuzzoni. Davies' famous arias will make you melt, while Evans soars effortlessly through an avalanche of top notes. The orchestra played sensitively with good pace. This may be a long Handelian show, but it felt short, and excellent.