The motif of the tattoo defines Richard Jones’ production of the three act tragedy, Rodelinda. Italicised names – symbols of romantic devotion – are scrawled across the bodies of Handel’s characters, dredging the preoccupations of each heart to the surface, and pulling the setting of the play into a relatively modern 20th century. The streaks of ink also underline the superficiality of lovers who spend the bulk of the narrative lamenting old flames or chasing new ones and, ultimately, foreground a production that doesn’t concern itself much with what lies beneath the skin.
After Grimoaldo usurps Bertarido’s throne, the former king abandons Milan, leaving behind Rodelinda (Rebecca Evans) and their son, Flavio (Matt Casey). Dissatisfied with having merely obtained Bertarido’s power, Grimoaldo sets out to acquire the hand of his rival’s wife. Whilst the bulk of the production sees the new leader and his spirited, unrequiting muse divided on stage by only a thin corridor, Jeremy Herbert’s bisected set clashes bureaucratic Milan with the simplistic, pious room of Rodelinda, complete with its mouldy tiles and greying whitewash. Plotted across a set that maps out Rodelinda and Grimoaldo’s opposing worlds, this attempted seduction is destined to fail.
Musically, under Christian Curnyn’s conduction, this work is faultless. With eyes closed, you could get lost in the violins’ taunts, the elegant persistence of the harpsichord and the sweetness with which countertenor Iestyn Davies’s voice melts with Rebecca Evans’s soprano. Open your eyes, though, and you’ll be confronted with gimmickry left, right and centre. Three treadmills line the front of the stage to indicate the entrapping nature of this bureaucratic system; animated neon signs brings us to a sleazy bar, where poor Bertarido considers his rotten predicament; and Jeremy Herbert and Steve Williams’s blocky computer animation brings memorial imagery to rudely dominate the stage. There’s a punchbag that channels cross-eyes grunge imagery and, later, the characters hop around a toppled statue. Words are drawn on swords, and branded onto knuckles that feed CCTV streams, like shots ripped from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet.
After all of this flamboyant excess, Rodelinda is at its most interesting when it takes time to mull over less ornate imagery. She may live in basic surroundings, but there’s nothing grubby about Rodelina’s spirit. With energy and conviction, Evans brings a rare truth to Grimoaldo’s rhetorical proclamation, “Did you ever see a feistier woman?”. Much wiser than her husband, Evans’s Rodelinda busies herself with schemes and manipulations, whilst our runaway male lead is feebly doubting her faith.
From her abandonment, the character of Rodelinda rises as a beacon of faith and imagination, strengthened by a voice that descends exhilaratingly from vengeful cries to crisp whispers. Biblical allusions have always been here, as mischievous Rodelinda, with a Salome-like command over her own sexuality, demands a councillor’s head as a first condition for marriage; Jones’s production supplements this echo by hammering a devotional image of Virgin and child on our heroine’s otherwise-bare walls – an image that, together with a clever piece of mimicry, enables Rodelinda to toy with the image of mother and child, smashing the idea of passive, gentle victim of fate. Instead, Rodelinda cunningly poses as the quick-witted engineer to the sacrifice of her muted son. Forget the screams of neon and the out-of proportion props – the production could have afforded to linger longer on parallels such as these.
Rodelinda is playing at the Coliseum until 15 March. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website. Photo by Clive Barda.