After a series of dud new productions, the English National Opera has at last got a palpable hit, with its first-ever staging of Handel’s Rodelinda, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Christian Curnyn. The company needed this badly, especially in view of the failure of their new Rigoletto, an ill-advised replacement for their money-spinning old production by Jonathan Miller. The ENO sometimes seems to have had a policy of looking for directors outside the ranks of experienced directors of opera, especially courting filmmakers. If success is measured by revivals of productions, the only unalloyed success I can think of was the Madame Butterfly by the late Anthony Minghella.
Of course the choice of veteran opera director Christopher Alden to create the new Rigoletto should have been a safer bet – but the production had already had two unsuccessful outings with the Canadian Opera Company and the Lyric in Chicago. Killing off Sir Jonathan’s wonderful Rigoletto was just plain stupid; but why, one wonders, didn’t the management of ENO simply keep it, and use the budget to commission the still-productive and ever-imaginative Miller to make yet another commercially valuable production for them?
However, if I had to name the other best opera director now working in Britain, it would be Richard Jones. I’m in a minority in admiring his 1994 Ring cycle for the Royal Opera, but I think all opera critics agree that his work is never less than stimulating.
The tale of the usurped king (Bertarido), supposed dead by his faithful wife (Rodelinda), child (Flavio) and compromised sister (Eduige), who is betrothed to the usurper (Grimoaldo) is complicated by Grimoaldo’s lust for Rodelinda. Jones sets the tale in Fascist-era Milan. Designer Jeremy Herbert’s sets encompass two rooms, with a narrow corridor in between, meaning there are lots of doors to slam between the stage-right room where the villains have their offices and living spaces, and the stage-left room with its surveillance cameras. In part this is a solution to the ever-present problem of how to distract the audience during the endless da capo arias, but it is an elegant way to separate the factions, even if it does mean that there is a little too much stage business.
In truth, though, this cast is so strong musically and dramatically that we’d still be transfixed if the action took place in a simple white cube. In the title role Rebecca Evans is magnificent, singing with conviction and intensity. No praise is sufficient for countertenor Iestyn Davies, for the beauty of his tone is almost startling. I heard him in a recital in Edinburgh this past summer, and was impressed; but it didn’t prepare me for this moving, thrillingly sensuous performance. The rest of this home-grown cast is grand, and Mr Curnyn gets a magnificent, urgent reading of the score from the orchestra. If they can continue to field a cast and conductor of this calibre, the ENO should be able to revive this production for many years to come.