Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sin City Meets Handel: Rodelinda @ English National Opera

Photograph © Clive Barda 2014

Despite being a less-than-10-minute walk away from my office, I had never been to the London Coliseum, home to the English National Opera (or "ENO", as it is better known in classical music circles). I've always been a little embarrassed by this, so I was thrilled when Alice said she had an extra ticket (purchased under ENO's Access All Arias scheme, which is fantastic, btw) for Tuesday evening's performance of Handel's Rodelinda (second embarrassing revelation of the evening: I never even knew that Handel wrote operas. Oh, dear).

In short, Rodelinda tells the story of Rodelinda, who is mourning the supposed death of her husband (the King) Bertarido, after he was driven out of his kingdom by the evil Grimoaldo. But in reality, Bertarido is alive and well (I'm not spoiling anything for you here, don't worry) and returns in disguise to seek revenge. Grimoaldo keeps Rodelinda and her son in a prison cell, unless she agrees to marry him, thus allowing him to become King. So far, so dramatic.

Having been warned in advance by Alice that ENO's often modern staging could be, at times, a little distracting, I was surprised by how well Richard Jones' production worked. Yes, at times the acting was a bit over the top and the comedic elements perhaps could have been perceived as making a mockery of Handel's original, tragic score, but you know what? It was also very enjoyable. I'm sure there are other productions out there that have remained true to Handel's original "vision", but I also attend operas, plays, ballets, and other theatrical performances to experience the myriad of interpretations by artistic directors rather than one, true-to-form version of events. Yes, at times, it was anything but credible, but it was wonderful to be transported into another world entirely and one that was full of unexpected surprises - even if some of those surprises raised eyebrows.

The set itself was inventive, quirky, and relevant.  Described as a "neon-lit, Lynchian dive" by this rather scathing (though interesting) review in The Spectator, one of my favorite scenes was played out in, yes, a fantastically neon-lit bar. The majority of the production reminded me very much of Sin City, with its bleak, crime-noir setting, interjected by short bursts of black and white cinematic interludes.

Though Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans was magnificent in her role of fiercely loyal Rodelinda, the standout star of the evening was definitely countertenor Iestyn Davies, whose Bertarido had the audience in stunned silence as soon as he opened his mouth for his first entrance. His voice was of the purest quality and his singing, effortless - as if it had simply been plucked from the air. It was really incredible to hear, as I've never experienced anything quite like it. I began to look forward to his solos in anticipation, and the duet between Bertarido and Rodelinda in the third act was just perfection. Grimoaldo, performed by John Mark Ainsley, seemed often overpowered by the orchestra - especially in the first act. The ends of phrases seemed to disappear and one had to strain to understand his words. Despite this, the acting and overall performance of the entire cast was marvelous.

Every time I watch an opera, but especially this one, I am amazed at how much coordination is involved to ensure everything runs smoothly. The orchestra must stay perfectly together, even in the trickiest parts for ensemble - otherwise the singers are thrown off. The singers must act, sing perfectly, and breathe at the appropriate places, otherwise the whole ensemble is thrown off. At the end of the day, the conductor is the glue that holds it all together: the cues, the careful watching, the allowance for the smallest nuances, all had me at the edge of my seat. When you think about it, it's really extraordinary.

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