Heartworn hoodlums: Handel’s Rodelinda, ENO

Even ruthless, psychotic gangsters have to fall in love sometimes. And Rodelinda is all about what happens when the people at the top of the cruel power pyramid have got their minds on… other things, like other people’s faithful wives, as well as their crime kingdoms. Director Richard Jones translates Rodelinda’s setting (originally 7th century Lombardy) to gangster warfare in 1950s Milan: a brilliant decision which at once rehabilitates the casual violence and thrilling power games of this constantly developing story, not to mention its dangerously volatile characters, each one plotting and sub-plotting away fervidly, both for and against Fate. Jeremy Herbert’s set design takes us from dilapidated rooms, paired and later stacked on stage to provide us with plenty of simultaneous action, to brutally plain outdoor street scenes, where three treadmills allow characters to chase after each other fruitlessly, and glorious wedding-cake Italian death monuments of statuesque ghastliness.

As the evening unfolds, the treadmills can start to feel a little over-used, but just wait till you see the hapless Unulfo’s toe-twinkling dance routine (a fabulously vivid, heartbreakingly loyal Christopher Lowrey). In another stunning scene, exiled kingpin Bertarido drowns his (mistaken) sorrows in an empty neon bar which screams loneliness and despair, a lurid update of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Characters demonstrate love and loyalty by tattooing names on their bodies, which means the faithless traitor Grimoaldo hilariously stacks up rather more names on his skin than he eventually needs: quite something to explain in the shower.

Richard Jones’ production thrums with vigour, his characteristically taut balance of marked formalism with naturalistic acting delivering tension, suspense and above all emotional legitimacy to each twist of the plot, which speaks with faultless clarity. Best of all, Jones opens this opera’s humour vein again and again, comedy hovering dangerously over the dark side of mafia life as hoodlums have fun deciding which murder weapon to use, or threaten gruesome deaths by acted gesture. The best of these come from Flavio, definitely Mummy’s little psychopath, silently acted with unnerving poise by Matt Casey, but a talent for physical comedy runs throughout this fine cast, not least from Neal Davies’ ruggedly coarse murderer-for-life Garibaldo.

Tim Mead’s astonishingly beautiful, poignantly strong-man-down Bertarido has us utterly in thrall from his first note to last, Handel’s plangent arias sounding spellbinding in his haunting countertenor. Rebecca Evans reprises her superb Rodelinda to gorgeous effect, an intoxicating combination of Evans’ cool, creamy, unhesitatingly clear soprano and fabulous acting, an Italian warrior princess in haute couture and heels. Juan Sancho steadily finds his way with Grimoaldo, the creepy usurper who becomes more and more appealing as his hopeless desire for Rodelinda drives him virtually mad. Susan Bickley’s Eduige veers between a force to be reckoned with, and a querulous, ageing spinster on uncertain ground, which brings interesting depth to this smaller role, although sometimes Eduige just lacks presence.

Christian Curnyn conducts the ENO Orchestra with a sense of pliant bounce and energy, listening sensitively to his singers, who repay him in spades. It’s a night of jaw-dropping musicality and intense drama: not to be missed.

At the London Coliseum until 15 November. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Co-production: English National Opera with the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia

Rating: Five 

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