Handel's Rodelinda at ENO

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Helen Wallace enjoys Richard Jones’s witty production of Rodelinda

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Handel's Rodelinda at ENO
© Clive Barda/ENO

As Handel’s radiant final chorus rings joy into the auditorium, triumphant Rodelinda and her family were busy locking up their new best friends and preparing for blood-thirsty revenge with Warner Bros relish. The usually frigid first-night crowd laughed despite themselves at Richard Jones’s mischievous production of this noblest of operas. His wit mostly paid off, and who could resist this classiest of British casts with Christian Curnyn proving an alchemist in the pit?

Rebecca Evans as Rodelinda warmed up through the first act and delivered her great aria of relief at finding Bertarido alive with a wonderful pianissimo inwardness. Susan Bickley brought pathos to her formidable Eudige, Richard Burkhard took on the murderer with richly resonant aplomb, while John-Mark Ainsley created a brilliantly seedy Grimoaldo, even if his voice was occasionally sub fusc. Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie as Unulfo begun by sounding querulous but rose to heights of brilliance in the third act, while Iestyn Davies stole the show with aria after aria of heavenly purity and ardour.

The opera’s heroine Rodelinda and her son are left vulnerable when Grimoaldo usurps her husband Bertarido’s throne and falls for her. Bertarido spreads a rumour of his own death, but delays revealing himself, hoping to test his wife’s fidelity, with disastrous results. Jones has set Handel’s gripping drama of a female courage in an Italy of the 1940s, with Fascist overtones but a strong stench of Mafia intrigue thrown in. Identity and allegiance are forged in blood rituals and tatoos: only Rodelinda, Bertarido and their son reject such outward branding in favour of spiritual loyalty.

Jeremy Herbert’s ingenious set is a dingy Milanese apartment block, where two rooms are linked by CCTV, enabling John-Mark Ainsley’s pervy Grimoaldo to lust over his captive, Rodelinda. It also provides a perfect visual set-up for the da capo arias: while the soloist sings freely, Jones’s other characters enact a counterpoint to the aria which underlines subtext rather than distracts. Sometimes, this was crassly pantomimic, as when the ‘silent’ son Flavio (a charismatic Matt Casey, growing ever more dangerous) mimes the ways in which Rodelinda will find to kill Grimoaldo or when Arnulfo gratuitously points out how Rodelinda and her son mirror the pietà on the wall. There’s bathos in Bertarido’s consoling ‘flowing waters’ being the soda fountain in the local bar, though Ainslie’s transformation into stylish barman is stylishly done.

At other times it works hand-in-glove, building up a terrific tension during Bertarido’s aria at the end of Act I, when he believes Rodelinda has betrayed him, as she and Grimoaldo whirl through the rooms in an intensely sexy tango (what a relief to find real choreography and singers who could compete in Strictly), or in the mercurial, chromatic aria in Act III as Grimoaldo dashes impotently about searching for the right weapon, furiously whipped up by Curnyn. Most memorable of all is the heart-stopping ‘Io t’abbraccio’ at the end of Act II, when Davies and Evans voices come together at last (a fabulous match) just as they are ruthlessly separated, each singing to the other as the rooms they stand in are dragged physically further and further apart. A witty production with a dark heart; don’t miss it.

Rodelinda runs until 15 March at London Coliseum