Interview: director Chris Rolls on Handel’s Rodelinda

First published in The Herald on 25 September, 2013

Handel composed some 40 operas. Inevitably there were one or two flops along the way, and more than a few recycled tunes, but the best of them are dramas of great power and pathos, jam-packed with some of the most sumptuous, sensuous, heart-on-sleeve arias ever written.

What no Handle opera can claim is a simple storyline. There’s usually a scheming monarch or several, some convoluted mistaken identities, the odd bout of madness or hocus pocus. The themes tend to be obvious enough (love, loyalty, revenge, vice, virtue) but with characters whose names all sound roughly the same and whose family trees look like tangly creepers, even the hardiest opera-goer can easily lose the plot, so to speak.

And that makes it doubly intriguing that the director of Scottish Opera’s new touring production of Handel’s Rodelinda is a self-proclaimed ‘story junky’. Chris Rolls – a sharp-minded, soft-spoken young director from Lichfield – describes his priority as “a decent case of what-happens-next”; that’s what keeps an audiences hooked, he says, more than concept, more than moral message.

Luckily Rodelinda is one of Handel’s more straight-forward operas, as well as one of his greatest – it’s up there with Tamerlano and Giulio Cesare, all written in 1724/25. The plot goes roughly like this: everyone thinks that Bertarido, king of Milan, is dead, including his wife Rodelinda. Actually he’s just in hiding while the evil Grimoaldo (who happens to be engaged to Bertarido’s sister Eduige) tries to overthrow the throne and force Rodelinda to marry him while he’s at it. There are dodgy dealings by a court counsellor called Garibaldo, some near misses with daggers in dark dungeons, but ultimately the faith and ingenuity of the long-suffering ladies wins through and rightful order is restored.

Rolls insists that it’s possible to tell it straight. “I think that all great storytelling comes from character,” he explains over a coffee between rehearsals. “I’m addicted to The Killing at the moment. The first series is 20 hours long, yet you really, really want to know what’s going to happen next. How is it possible to hold someone’s interest for 20 hours? Only by making them care about the characters.”

“In opera there’s often a gap between what the music is expressing and what the words are saying. Character can exist in that gap.” Think of it like life, he says: what we say isn’t always what we really mean. In opera the words and music can both be disingenuous to varying and conflicting degrees – so much for straight-forward, but it’s a lot to play with.

So why do Handelian characters often end up acting as archetypes? Rodelinda stands for love and loyalty; Grimoaldo stands for malice, and so on, without much everyday human fine-print. For Rolls that approach is a cop-out. “On day one of rehearsals we decided to investigate these characters as if they are real people. There’s always an aria or a recitative that reveals them. Garibaldo is pretty Machiavellian, but there are fleeting glimpses where he’s also screwed up and vulnerable. Those are the moments we have to hone in on.”

The fact that this is an up-close production is helpful here, he says, “because it’s especially important to be detailed and truthful. It’s all about convincing relationships.” But the fact that there won’t be a full orchestra (Scottish Opera has cut the score to a bare-bones trio of cello, violin and harpsichord) makes Rolls’s job even harder: often it’s Handel’s colourful instrumental writing that gives away the unspoken emotional narrative.

Rolls came to opera via theatre. He studied English at Edinburgh, where he spent most of his time acting and directing at the Bedlam. “I’m not a musician,” he tells me upfront. “I can make my way through a vocal score, but mostly I treat an opera as I would a play.” He’s spent enough time in opera houses to know what works, though; he assisted David McVicar on Scottish Opera’s Cosi fan tutte in 2009, Barrie Kosky on English National Opera’s Castor and Pollux in 2011, and recently directed a community production of Verdi’s Macbeth at Blackheath Halls in London. “That really made me appreciate what opera can be. To get people who might not otherwise connect singing together, experiencing the same emotional power at the same moment, is absolutely amazing.”

He likes the idea that much of the audience for this tour might be “experiencing this kind of music for the first time,” and hates the idea of creating work for people who have already seen the same opera in a hundred different productions – “that seems a really arrogant approach”. Ultimately, he says, what the audience takes away is whether they felt empathy with a character.

“Don’t get me wrong: I love concept, and working with Kosky taught me it’s possible to do both. As long as you’re taking people on a journey where they’re desperate to know what happens next, then you can be as wilfully conceptual as you like. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s fault that in this country we’re such story junkies and we tend to switch off if the narrative is unclear.”

Which brings us back to Handel. What about all those da capo arias, where a character reflects on their feelings by singing a melody through once then repeating a great chunk of it again? In Handel’s day they were all the rage because they showed off star singers (the repeat would be loaded up with trills and frills). These days, directors often stumble over a form that, dramatically speaking, can be deathly stagnant.

“You’re telling me! Basically I’m trying to treat these arias as if they’re continuously unfolding scenes of action. A repeat is never a repeat in terms of intention. This is our chance to get to know the character, to really see beyond the public persona and into their deepest feelings. In terms of character-building, these are the most insightful moments.” Failing that, the tunes are great.

Coming to a theatre, arts centre or school gym near you…

Rodelinda opens at The Beacon, Greenock, tomorrow. It then travels to:

Nevis Centre, Fort William, October 1
Macphail Theatre, Ullapool, October 3
An Lanntair, Stornoway, October 5
Wick High School, October 8
Eden Court, Inverness, October 10
Haddo House, Ellon, October 12
Macrobert, Stirling, Cctober 15
Easterbrook Hall, Dumfries, October 17
Victoria Halls, Helensburgh, October 19
Gardyne Theatre, Dundee, October 22
Deeside Theatre, Aboyne, October 24
Nairn Community & Arts Centre, October 26
Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, October 29
The Tait Hall, Kelso, October 31
and Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, November 2