The bottom-up theory of opera

Concepts? Who needs them. In his production of Handel's 'Rodelinda', Jonathan Miller prefers to tell the story and then see what happens. By Malcolm Hayes
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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Miller doesn't like concepts - not in opera productions, anyway. We are talking between rehearsals of Handel's Rodelinda at Broomhill, the massive Kent mansion to which is attached - courtesy of an erstwhile Victorian owner's inspired eccentricity - one of the most attractive small opera theatres in the country.

Also included in this summer's opera season at Broomhill are Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, and Kenneth Dempster's And the Bridge is Love (the latest manifestation of Broomhill's commitment to developing promising new composing talent in conjunction with performers, conductors and directors). Broomhill is also a year-round centre for educational projects, health-service administration, and conferences. Dr Miller has therefore been doubly enjoying himself when not absorbed in working out how to present Handelian opera convincingly to a modern audience - there has been plenty of visiting company with whom to bone up on the latest developments in clinical psychology.

Miller's teeming and multifaceted intellect ought to make him (a) impossibly formidable company, and (b) a member of the contemporary breed of opera producer that specialises in stagings that are concept-ridden to the point of constipation. That neither situation applies in his case has much to do with a genuine artistic imagination, plus an irrepressible sense of humour. Both qualities have led to some entertaining stand-offs in continental opera houses, where production concepts are on the whole considered de rigueur. Miller delightedly tells me the story of his first meeting with a German dramaturg who, sure enough, began by insisting: "What is your Begriff [concept]?" Miller explained that the staging he had in mind was not concept-dominated; that it didn't represent the heroine's dream, nor the hero's dream, nor anyone else's dream, and that his objective was to start by telling the story. After an astonished pause came the response. "But Herr Doktor, if you do not have your Begriff, then you will have problematics with your praxis."

For all that, Miller is very serious in his own way at the afternoon's rehearsal, his concern for movement, gesture, and the exact timing of lighting changes is as meticulous as it's intense. The difference between him and most of his peers is that he likes these details to emerge spontaneously from clues within the work itself, and from the singers' individual responses as much as his own. "In psychology there's a lot of work being done about the difference between a top-down approach and one that's bottom-up," he says. "There's a lot too much of top-down in opera stagings at the moment. What I prefer to do is to start with the libretto and the score and see what happens."

He has had several months to think about this, because the cast first sang Rodelinda in a one-off, semi-staged concert performance at Blackheath Concert Halls in mid-February. That this actually happened at all was the culmination of an intricate operatic plot in its own right. Rodelinda was devised by Miller and impresario Ron Gonsalves in conjunction with Channel 4 television and Hyperion Records. Channel 4 then suddenly pulled out of the project, and just before the concert performance, Hyperion did the same.

Conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas Kraemer, who by this stage was already rehearsing Handel's gorgeous score with the cast and the Raglan Baroque Players, refused to be fazed by this vintage example of Nineties- style artistic planning. Within a few frenetic days he had helped to engineer an agreement with Virgin Classics to record Rodelinda instead. "Looking back, I suppose it was all fairly unbelievable," he says genially. "But no crazier than the kind of opera-related crises that Handel had to cope with all the time."

Miller's Blackheath semi-staging was straight enough apart from one device whose effectiveness, in true Miller style, was at once bizarre and benign. Offsetting the orchestra's presence on the left of the platform was a table at the back and on the right, at which those cast members not currently singing and emoting at heavenly Handelian length were to be seen sitting, reading, inaudibly chatting, and drinking coffee. Among them was Kraemer's young son Dominic, who got through a fair number of comics between appearances in the silent role of Rodelinda's son Flavio. Seeing all this at the rehearsal, I assumed that it would have disappeared for the performance. In fact it turned out to be part of it.

Miller now tells me that the idea related to the psychological concept of "frames" as explored by the American sociologist Erving Goffmann, ie the phenomenon that independent strands of action and behaviour can operate happily in non-associative parallel as long as the "frame" demarcating them is clearly presented. There's no evidence, however, of the table / frame as part of Claudia Mayer's set for Broomhill, "No," says Miller, "it wouldn't have worked. I knew we'd have to start again in that department."

The result is a staging telling the story of Rodelinda - Queen of Lombardy and the loyal and much put-upon wife of the usurped and banished King Bertarido - in terms at once elliptical and intelligible. Miller has no qualms about revising the libretto's setting in semi-ancient Lombardy. "Plots like this one deal in virtual historical realities. It's a notional setting. When I start on a staging I like to look for what I call an 'else- when'. 'Once upon a time' is such a lovely phrase - it points obliquely off the historical axis towards what philosophers would call a 'possible world'. The one we've found here is in a kind of 20th-century limbo."

Far from considering the dramatic structure of Handelian opera seria a problem, he finds its method of alternating short bursts of scene-setting recitative and / or action with long, static da capo arias a rich resource. Those long instrumental introductions, for instance? "They're like thought before speech. When people are coping with sudden events or shocks or emotions, their words take time to swim into focus. Handel's way of repeating the entire first section of an aria has parallels with human thought-processes, too. When we try to get something across to someone else, we're always repeating phrases or whole sentences to convince that person. Also to convince ourselves. It's true to life. Of course developing the characters doesn't just take care of itself. It's about looking within each character for ideas which are lying around and waiting to be taken up. They're like orphans: they need finding and cherishing. When you do that, perhaps some of them will flower."

He is much taken, too, with the tall, vertical, white-paint-splashed sheets of hardboard that Claudia Mayer has assembled as the walls of the basic set. Her costume-designs show up as vividly against it as pictures in a well-hung gallery, while Mark Elst's lighting changes switch fluently between suggestions of Bertarido's prison cell, with a shaft of sunlight slanting bleakly through a single window, and the insistently bright throne- room of his usurper, Grimoaldo. "It's a court," says Miller. "Though I know some of the audience are bound to think that if this is a court, then it needs doing up a bit."

n 'Rodelinda' opens tonight; further performances 3, 6 and 8 Aug. 'The Turn of the Screw' opens 17 Aug, 'La Serva Padrona' 23 Aug, and the two performances of 'And the Bridge is Love' are on 9 Aug. Booking: 01892 517720. Virgin Classics' 'Rodelinda' will be released in Jan 1997