John Mark Ainsley, Susan Bickley, Iestyn Davies and Rebecca Evans in the ENO's Rodelinda. Photo: Clive Barda
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Rodelinda and Die Frau Ohne Schatten: the operatic search for truth amid the noise

Two new shows from English National Opera and the Royal Opera House might sound completely different, but each finds the still small voice of human truth hidden underneath the excess.

Rodelinda; Die Frau Ohne Schatten
English National Opera; Royal Opera House

Pyschological and emotional truthfulness aren’t obvious priorities of opera –  a genre once famously defined as that in which “a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of dying, he sings.” But there’s a good reason for that. Done well, opera is bigger, brighter, bolder than life. Filtered down into a two-verse aria, emotions are heightened. Edited down to a twenty-page libretto, plots are distilled.

A great production not only understand this excess but trusts it to make its mark. Two new shows from English National Opera and the Royal Opera House might look (and sound) entirely different, but each finds the still small voice of human truth hidden underneath all that noise.

Richard Jones wasn’t an obvious choice to direct Handel’s Rodelinda. It may be one of the most psychologically plausible of the composer’s operas, with characters developed fully from motive to action, but it’s still shackled by the creaking conventions of opera seria. If Jones found much to ridicule in the stiff pageantry of Britten’s Gloriana, then how much more could and would he find here?

The answer, it turns out, is plenty. But it’s done with so much affection, so much sly insight and irreverence that it makes something persuasively contemporary of this medieval tale of dynastic alliances.

From 7th-century Italy we move to a 1950s, post-war Milan in which Mafia war-lords jostle for supremacy and position from within concrete bunkers. Visual references clamour a bit too knowingly, but Jones’s trademark humour woos the audience so effectively that it’s hard to object, even when the exiled Bertarido (Iestyn Davies) sings his gorgeous Act II sicilienne “Con Rauco Mormorio” in a bar. As he muses on the bubbling, murmuring streams, above his head two neon beer bottles disgorge their own sparkling contents. It’s glib, smug, and cuts through the overwrought sincerity of the moment in a way we all recognise from the great television writing of our age – shrugging off the same emotions it works so hard to provoke.

The one moment where all jokes finally fall silent is a triumph. The opera’s sole duet “Io t’abbraccio” sees Bertarido and his wife Rodelinda (Rebecca Evans) reunited, but facing death. The simplest of visual effects has them drift further and further from each other even as the music intensifies, visually mirroring those clinging suspensions of the music. Elsewhere, the substitution a full-grown young man (the excellent Matt Casey) for the usual child playing Rodelinda’s son Flavio is an interesting one. This silent role speaks volumes in Jones’s hands, cutting across any humorous brashness with a darker psychological narrative of trauma.

Onstage the musicianship is exemplary. Davies acts as well as his sings, bringing purity and projection to a role that can easily turn whiny. The simplicity of his “Dove Sei” was exquisite. If anything he’s outdone though by the creamy, overflowing richness of Evans – poised and stately, unbending into sudden passion for Act III “Se’l mio duol”. Both Susan Bickley’s Eduige and Christopher Ainslie’s Unulfo add to Jones’s curdled world, but John Mark Ainsely’s Grimoaldo felt caught somewhere between English pastoralism and villainous Italian machinations.

What a shame, with so much to love here, that Christian Curnyn can’t summon something a little more biting, more truly baroque from his band. Handel’s phrases cried out in vain for line and direction, lacking the percussive crackle for Garibaldo’s music, and skating on the surface even as Davies and Evans dig so deep.

The Royal Opera House Orchestra, by contrast, are at their very best under Semyon Bychkov for Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Of all the anniversary celebrations this year, this is perhaps the bravest, and certainly the most interesting. An uneasy blend of folk play, fairytale and symbolist drama, the opera is notoriously difficult to stage and if Claus Guth’s production doesn’t resolve all issues, it brings a clarity to the action that allows the generous score to be the star.

With additional percussion projected out into the audience, this is above all a performance of sensory impact. Strauss’s huge instrumental forces are matched by a rare cast of principals who can carry this weighty music, catching the orchestral waves and riding them skilfully – as Michaela Schuster’s Nurse does in the earthquake scene, surrounded by some particularly horrible demons in Christian Schmidt’s designs. Empress Emily Magee’s opening vocal convulsions catch the mood from the pit, arching with the same fluid muscularity. Johan Botha’s Emperor is no less powerful – dramatically this a good fit for his stoic solidity – and Elena Pankratova makes an unusually sympathetic and even beguiling Dyer’s Wife.

Guth’s production makes no attempt to observe the colourful and outrageous demands of Hoffmanstahl’s libretto. Almost wilfully severe, his visuals have a symbolist simplicity to them – the unremitting wooden prison of the Empress’s bedchamber giving way only occasionally to visions of beyond. Even the Dyer (Johann Reuter) swaps cloths for animal hides, skinning them vividly and fleshily, as if to remind us just how earth and blood-bound this fantasy really is. After the romping excesses of Rodelinda it’s something of a shock, but as musical reality-checks go you’ll struggle to find finer.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder