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.