The cast of Rodelinda performs "Handel's melodies with clarity and emotion"Sophie Rogan with permission for Varsity

I have had to sit down to write this review only minutes after seeing Rodelinda because for large swathes of the play I simply forgot to take notes; I was so swept up in the music and drama that I could not bring myself to miss a second by jotting something down.

To give a brief summary, the play follows a usurper, Grimoaldo (Finlay A’Court) trying to marry Rodelinda, wife of Bertarido (Louis Pettit), the former king, whilst they and other members of the royal household concoct their own plans to get what they desire. These characters are brought to life by a very strong cast, capable of both performing Handel’s melodies with clarity and emotion and acting whilst silent.

“Her first aria was so spellbinding that the audience went perfectly still”

The standout is Emily Callow’s breathtaking performance in the title role, note-perfect and always brimming with passion; her first aria was so spellbinding that the audience immediately went perfectly still so that there would be no risk of even the slightest interruption. That said, the key strength of this production lies in the interactions between the different characters. The actors spend a lot of time together on the stage, even when not singing, and this constant presence gives the show an intimate feel as the audience can often clearly see the expressions and reactions of the non-singing characters, helped by the small, intimate staging which has the actors only feet away from the audience. This small space is well-utilised, split into two sides which represent different locations, distinguishing settings simply and effectively.

In addition, the musicians (precise in their performance and Baroque in instrumentation — exciting for an enthusiast like me, since the music sounded very close to how it would have done in Handel’s day) play in one corner of the stage, meaning that we can see them throughout the whole performance. Rather than being distracting, this visibility emphasised the vital role that the musicians play in an opera like this; the enthusiasm of the string players swaying with the music was infectious, and the recorder melodies floating in from the side of the stage in response to the singing demonstrated that both the singers and instrumentalists were consummate musicians, listening and reacting to each other with ease.

“Sophie Madden’s costumes integrate modern elements in a way that seems unobtrusive and evocative”

However good the music is, the art direction (overseen here by Xoan Elsdon) can still make or break a production, but thankfully it is largely successful here. Tom Unwin’s sets are minimal but convey just enough information to let the audience know what they represent, which is all that is needed on such a small set. Sophie Madden’s costumes integrate modern elements in a way that seems unobtrusive and evocative (there is a very elegant use of different colours and styles to distinguish different factions in the story) rather than anachronistic. Generally, these modern flourishes work in the art direction, such as in the wonderful opening with Bertarido and Grimoaldo preparing for their day, but the choice to end the opera with the characters enjoying a picnic crossed the line into twee for me.


Mountain View

‘Mnemonic’ neatly spans both space and time

The lighting was dramatic and effective, veering between near-complete darkness and full illumination. The only downside to this is that sometimes the surtitles seemed a little dim and hard to read in the bright light, although I almost never used them. Even though the opera is sung in the original Italian, the performances were so hypnotic that I struggled to look away and the direction of the plot is clearly conveyed through just the acting and the music, a stunning storytelling achievement.

Gonville and Caius Music Society’s Rodelinda is a stunning production that manages to execute every element of the opera near-perfectly. I was swept up in the music and the drama from the very start and remained rapt for the duration of the performance. Any lover of Handel or opera in general would do well to see it.

Rodelinda plays at the Gonville and Caius Bateman Auditorium from Wednesday 3rd to Thursday 4th May, 7:45pm.