Rodelinda – Handel heroine turned silent-screen star – is ready for her close-up. Christopher Cowell's reworking of Jean-Marie Vellegier's highly effective staging is back in the Glyndebourne Touring repertoire, and a star is born. Until three years ago, when this production was new, who'd have thought Handel operas had so much in common with silent movies? Think about it. Every gesture, every facial expression, every contrived attitude caught and held at precisely the best angle for the camera. Surtitles as captions. We, the audience, out there in the dark, gazing through the view-finder.
What we see still looks exquisite. 1920s chic with a touch of fantasy. Sets by Nicolas de Lajartre and Pascale Cazales, exquisite costumes by Patrice Cauchetier – sepia silks set against monochrome backdrops, every one of them dressed to kill. The drama-queen factor is high in the case of Rodelinda and her sister-in-law Eduige. Emma Bell, who was a last-minute substitute for one performance on the last tour, now has the coveted title role – and she grasps it with an assurance and determination that says none other shall have it. The voice is ample and true, the coloratura imperious. "Was ever contempt as beautiful as hers," says Grimoaldo. Too right. As Eduige, Jean Rigby is the butt, so to speak, of the production's keen sense of Handelian humour and irony. From her very first aria, where she kindly leaves the stage only to return unexpectedly for the da capo, her vampish deceptions are played for all they're worth. Funny business involving weaponry concealed on a tea-trolley is sharper this time round. So is Rigby's singing, scary in the biggest of the top and bottom notes, though I still wish the tone quality of her middle range was less occluded.
But at least she is rock-steady in the coloratura, which is more than can be said for Stephen Rooke's Grimoaldo. This is a good voice but all its quality is dissipated in the discomfort of the passage work. He must work on mobility and rhythm. So must Matthew White (Unulfo), though again the sound is pleasing and the comic touch sure. As Garibaldo, Jonathan Best's villainy is compounded by the notion that while smoking may seriously damage your health, it can get you a lot of laughs if you punctuate the puffs precisely enough.
Precision was certainly the watchword of the conductor, Emmanuelle Haïm. A well-honed rhythmic angularity. A little square for my liking. I have to say that I missed an element of fantasy here, of indulgence even, of end cadences to have one drooling for the next. Which brings me to the real star of the evening. Robin Blaze (Bertarido) could hardly be more different from the German countertenor superstar Andreas Scholl, whose involvement was such a casting coup for Glyndebourne on the production's first outing. Blaze's sound is slighter, more plaintive, less voluptuous. But the naturalness of it and the honesty of its deployment give it a reach far exceeding questions of size and opulence. Indeed, its naturalness is a considerable advantage in the homespun pastorale of Act II, while its leanness, agility and resilience more than compensate for its bantam weight, giving the bristling oboe writing a run for its money in the bravura "Vivi tiranno".
One of Handel's great inspirations in Rodelinda was to mirror the opening of Bertarido's first aria – a single note held on an eternal crescendo – with that of Rodelinda, reaching out, if you like, to the husband she thinks dead. When they are reunited only to be torn apart, the duet they sing brings the voices closer and closer together to exquisite harmonic effect. With Blaze and Bell in complete accord here, you rather hoped it would never end.
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