Michael Tanner

Unclear Handeling

Plus: music never lies, George Steiner has said more than once. He should go to Menotti’s The Consul at GSMD and hear that he is wrong

Unclear Handeling
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Coliseum, in rep until 11 November

The Consul

Silk Street Theatre, until 6 November

ENO has revived Richard Jones’s production of Handel’s Rodelinda. It was warmly greeted on its first outing in 2014, though Jones was, as he remains, inveterately controversial. The opera itself seems to command universal admiration among Handelians, and widespread approval among those of us who have never quite managed to call ourselves that.

The most unequivocally positive response I’ve had to it was at Glyndebourne in 1998, where it was produced as if it were an early black-and-white film, and superbly conducted by William Christie. Viewing the DVD has confirmed my warm feelings about it. My chillier feelings about ENO’s in many ways excellent account are prompted, first, by Jones’s larkiness, and second by the uneven level, as I hear it, of the work itself. The last Handel opera I saw was Semele, a piece that takes wings, musically, from the start (almost) and remains airborne. Rodelinda’s Act I really can’t be said to do that. There is a lot of expounding to do, and that means a string of more or less interchangeable arias for many of the main characters, whose endless flights of coloratura do equally well for mockery, threats, contempt, resolution and the other emotions that pervade the work. Only with Bertarido’s contemplation of his own memorial (he is thought to be dead) does Handel achieve the poignant individuality which is one of his major strengths. Tim Mead’s assumption of the role is fine, if not exalted.

The cast is largely the same as in 2014, though it is sad to report that both Rebecca Evans in the title role, and Susan Bickley as Eduige, one of those characters who change their strongest feelings as if they were trying on cardigans, have developed edges to their voices which make it hard for them to sound tender, and gives their acres of coloratura a sense of strain. They are still superb performers, endowing their roles with as much life as the work allows. Rodelinda is unusual in having a major tenor role for the eventually repentant villain, wonderfully sung and acted by Juan Sancho. Two more admirable countertenors complete the singing cast. There is a crucial silent part, for Rodelinda and Bertarido’s pathetic little son, a pawn in the power struggle between the heroine and the chief villain. A typical Jones stroke is to have him played by a fully grown young man, who looks as if he should be fending for himself rather than letting vocalisers push him around. Why does Jones do these things? To be different, is one plausible answer. To establish an unease as to whether we are seeing serious or absurd goings on is another.

Rodelinda, like many Handel operas, has scenes which are easily seen as ludicrous, as well as scenes of sly humour. Jones varies the tone so much that no level of response can be maintained for long, yet nothing is gained from the ceaseless shifts except an unwillingness to take any of it seriously. Christian Curnyn’s stately but ascetic conducting doesn’t clarify the issue. Warning to provincials: billed as lasting until 22.15, the opera actually lasts about 40 minutes longer than that.

Whatever else you may think of Menotti’s The Consul, it is never boring. It’s far too distasteful for that. Menotti’s fall from popularity was as rapid and spectacular as any operatic reputation ever, and this Guildhall School of Music in its first-rate production shows why. The Consul was a runaway success on Broadway in the late 1940s, with its themes of immigration and crushing state bureaucracy, so all the more reason for it to be popular now. But the gap between will and deed has never been greater than in this opera, which sounds like bad Bernstein with even more pretensions. The settings alternate between a depressing kitchen, complete with sink, and an immigration office where hopeless people sit forever. John, a wounded freedom fighter, is on the run; his wife Magda and his mother are nursing his sick baby, who dies halfway through and is led off in a white coffin to a pathetic little funeral march; Magda eventually gasses herself and there is a ghostly dance, heavily indebted to Ravel.

The music lacks identity, or rather borrows many. Magda, superbly sung on the opening evening by Michelle Alexander, is a close relation of Tosca, minus the tunes. If anything keeps one on the edge of one’s seat, it is when and how the thing is going to end, because that is where Menotti will make his final splurge, with a heartrending all-stops-out orchestral summing up, then an all-passion-spent whisper — followed, in this production, by an immense pregnant silence. Music never lies, George Steiner has said more than once. He should go to this opera and hear that he is wrong.