Opera: I'm ready for my close-up, maestro

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The Independent Culture
A GLAMOROUS woman emerges from her chic apartment building. She is distraught, strikes a tragic pose. And another, and another. The images are monochromatic, the look distinctly 1920's, and the woman - her name is Rodelinda - might easily have stepped straight out of an Erich Von Stroheim film. Except for one thing: this star of the silent screen sings Handel. And rather well.

Betrayal, grief, longing, contempt, revenge. And, of course, glamour. High-born individuals in compromising predicaments. The periods or locations, the political or historical contexts, are interchangeable; the plots are improbable. But the human factor - the intensity of human feeling - makes for a new experience every time. How much old movies have in common with Handel operas. And how clever of the French director, Jean-Marie Vellegier, to have made that connection. As the opening scene of this handsome new Glyndebourne staging unfolds and we see the ambitious and arrogant Grimoaldo (the excellent Kurt Streit) force himself upon the proud and constant Rodelinda, it's as if the surtitles are suddenly silent movie captions. There's an exclamation mark to every gesture, every facial expression. With each operatic stanza, Grimoaldo and Rodelinda - and how magnificently she resists him! - assume another precarious clinch. Attitudes are struck and held at the best angle for the camera. And all the while we, the audience, are out there in the dark, looking through that lens.

Finding the right body language, the right level and intensity of gesture and expression for opera seria of this period is a constant dilemma for the opera director. The wonder is that no one (to the best of my knowledge) has thought of it before Vellegier. The hand gestures of the silent screen would seem to have evolved so naturally from those of baroque opera. Why, Louise Winter, as Eduige, sister of the opera's deposed hero Bertarido, would seem to have borrowed Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond for the night. Her habit of kindly leaving the stage after the aria only to reappear from somewhere entirely unexpected for the da capo is a recurrent feature of Vellegier's production. He gently pokes fun at the conventions of baroque opera without ever ridiculing them. And because his sense of the genre's formality is strong, and his stage pictures (designers Nicolas de Lajartre and Pascale Cazales) elegantly composed, the balance of tragi-comedy (and there is humour, or at least irony, in all Handel) is well maintained. It helps that everyone is dressed for dinner at all times (costumes Patrice Cauchetier), but the mere sight of Anna Caterina Antonacci's Rodelinda, a vision in grey silk set against a blackened stage, assumed a classical beauty all its own.

Add to that the music, the arias - one exquisite number after another - and you add the drama. It's all in the vocal lines. Antonacci's physical charisma was more than matched in her singing. This voice is not in itself a great instrument, but the artistry with which she deploys it will surely convince you that it is. The Italianate temperament ignites the coloratura - we can almost take that for granted - but it is her imagination, her ability to lend enchantment to the long phrase, to hold it, and you, in thrall that makes her really special. With one word, "umbra" ("shadow ... of my beloved"), and one note held on an eternal crescendo, Handel has her reaching out to the husband she thinks dead. He, in the personage of the remarkable German countertenor, Andreas Scholl (his stage debut quite a coup for Glyndebourne), has just such a moment in his first aria, and Scholl, silencing, hypnotising this house with the sheer ravishment and refinement of his singing, played like a zephyr on our aural senses. The voice is almost too beautiful to be subjugated to the rigours of Handel's dramatic pyrotechnics, but Scholl was never faint-hearted. And when he and Antonacci bade farewell at the close of Act Two, parting was rarely of such bittersweet sorrow.

As ever, William Christie, directing a sumptuous sounding Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, gave the score its head. There was time for fantasy, time for delectation, and end cadences to have one drooling for the next.

At the close, showers of flower petals provided the evening's first splash of colour and even the villain of the piece came back from the dead. A cocktail trolley duly appeared, right on cue. It takes a Frenchman, it seems, to know the Glyndebourne audience.

Glyndebourne box office (01273 813813)