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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.