Rodelinda, Glyndebourne Festival

A queen ready for her close-up
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The Independent Culture

She still looks as though she might have stepped out of an Erich von Stroheim film. She has the body language (and the frocks) of a Norma Desmond. Every gesture, every look is primed for the camera. She's ready for her close-ups. But this star of the silent screen likes to make herself heard. How paradoxical is that? She sings Handel. And she sings it extremely well.

She still looks as though she might have stepped out of an Erich von Stroheim film. She has the body language (and the frocks) of a Norma Desmond. Every gesture, every look is primed for the camera. She's ready for her close-ups. But this star of the silent screen likes to make herself heard. How paradoxical is that? She sings Handel. And she sings it extremely well.

Emma Bell is back at Glyndebourne to reprise the role of Rodelinda in Jean-Marie Villegier's highly cinematic staging. She looks fabulous (haute couture of the Twenties by Patrice Cauchetier); she sounds even better. All that was impressive about her Glyndebourne debut back in 1998 has now matured and been marinated to an exceptionally high level of accomplishment. The voice is ample and true, the sound consistently beautiful. But what really connects with her audience is the depth and the range of the expression. Whether concentrated into a mere thread of sound - the pinpoint crescendo at the start of "Ombre, piante, urne funeste" - or unleashed with blistering force in the imperious coloratura, she dominates the evening with her emotional truth. A living, breathing heroine - not just another drama-queen.

In that sense she is slightly at odds with Villegier's production. I have to say it's growing rather thin with reacquaintance. Yes, it was a smart idea to begin with - the baroque opera style has much in common with the screen silents; the surtitles double well as captions. But it is just a context. It doesn't dig much deeper than that. As for humour, Villegier gets plenty of mileage from false exits in the arias with characters reappearing as if to say: "And another thing...!" But otherwise, cosmetic is probably the word. Sepia silks and satins set against monochrome backdrops, and very moodily, very discreetly lit. Perhaps we should dub the original lighting designer (Bruno Boyer) "the prince of darkness". "The lightless air hides everything from view," the opera's hero comments in the dungeon scene of the final act. Too right.

But that brings me to the other star performance of the evening: Marijana Mijanovic as Bertarido, the deposed King of Lombardy, a role hitherto sung by male altos in this production. Bertarido's chaste and very famous entrance aria "Dove sei" brought forth yearning legato and exquisitely turned trills from Mijanovic - singing with a reach way beyond the sound itself. It's true that her rather soft-grained voice didn't really have the heroic thrust for the climactic "Vivi tiranno" but the rhythmic imperative of her bristling coloratura brought its own kind of excitement.

We shouldn't, of course, be overly conscious of the vocal callisthenics. And we were, alas, in the case of Timothy Robinson's Grimoaldo. His coloratura work was very clunky indeed. Nor did the top of his voice ring as cleanly or as pleasingly as it generally does. Focus was conspicuous by its absence from Paul Gay and Jean Rigby's singing, too. Gay (Garibaldo) is asked to puff on a cigarette through his most strenuous aria so you might ask if we've any right to expect better in the circumstances. Rigby (Eduige) still sounds plummy and occluded, indistinct, in the middle of the voice.

Nothing indistinct about the playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Emmanuelle Haim. It's a little too angular for my liking; but where our hero and heroine come together in perfect harmony for their great duet in Act Two, time and space and tempo all fade into blissful irrelevance. Where would this silent movie be without its soundtrack?

Further performances: 25 & 30 June, 6, 9, 18, 23, 25, 28 & 31 July (01273 813813; www.glyndebourne.com)

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