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.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt