Off the Handel

Jonathan Miller's 'Rodelinda' takes liberties with the composer's aims. By Antony Peattie
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Music and drama came together briefly in the duet "Io t'abbraccio". Beautifully sung by Sophie Daneman, the lustrous Rodelinda who had by then relaxed into her role, and by Daniel Taylor, an exceptional counter- tenor Bertarido, it was staged by Jonathan Miller with telling simplicity and proved the emotional high point of the evening. Intimate in scale, David Solomons' theatre of 1896 is ideally suited to young voices and a small orchestra.

The performance, conducted by Nicholas Kraemer with the Raglan Baroque Players, made one look forward to the Virgin recording: it was lively, attentive to detail and exhilaratingly inflected. As for the rest of the production, a lot of clutching went on, not of people but of props: flowers, hats, gloves, pearls, lapels, the chair and, all too often, the scenery. Such boring, static posturing suited Dr Miller's inhibited and inhibiting sense of theatre: for the sake of picturesquely lit poses the cast froze like mannequins and sang to the corners, the wings or the floor, rather than out to us. In this mode, Miller works less like a director, more like a window dresser.

Claudia Mater's tasteful setting comprised white scumbled walls cluttered with white drapes and whitened laurel wreaths, and a ladder that led nowhere and was never used - presumably a (non-conceptual) symbol? Over-elaborate costumes seemed to inhibit the singers further; the most experienced performers survived best. Eiddwen Harrhy as Eduige was exemplary in her use of the Italian text, Matthew Hargreaves a resonant, impressive Garibaldo, Adrian Thompson, a camp, puffed up penguin of a tyrant, polishing his jewels in the ritornello to his Act III aria. Unfortunately, this amusing detail went against the pastorale that Handel wrote.

Worse was to come. The opera turns on the point when the hero saves the tyrant's life, gives him his sword back and invites him to vent his fury on him. Daniel Taylor rose to the challenge of Bertarido's last aria and sang superbly, his vertiginous decorations a tour de force that made technique serve the drama. Miller had decided, however, to turn Grimoaldo into a harmless, comic figure, which made nonsense of Bertarido's bravery.

In the same way, the dead Garibaldo joined in the final chorus of rejoicing that night has yielded to day. So it was just a jape! But if there is no darkness, there is no light. This was a cheap, philistine and very English subversion of Handel's seriousness. For a man who prides himself on his intellect, for a director who boasts that he tells the story and avoids concepts, Jonathan Miller's intervention seemed a remarkably arrogant betrayal of Handel's intentions. It was also a sad come-down from that duet.

n Further performances tomorrow, Tues and Thurs. Booking: 01892 517720