Handel's operas were written for virtuoso performers, and students attempt them at their peril. Yet in this self-designed staging by David Fielding for the London Handel festival, the first of two alternate casts of young singers from the Royal College of Music deliver with remarkable vocal accomplishment. They act their roles finely, too, entering into the physicality and occasional violence with the same conviction they apply to notes and, crucially, to words, which provide vital motivation for the score's innumerable arias.
The story follows Bertarido, king of Milan, who is believed dead even by his eponymous wife, though in reality he is in hiding. His perilous journey back to power is threatened by the machinations of the piece's two villains ? rival duke Grimoaldo, and the latter's accomplice, Garibaldo ? while his wife remains loyal to his memory.
Fielding transfers the action to a modern Italy torn apart by a Balkan-type conflict, with the men in military fatigues except for Bertarido, who by the end is visibly traumatised and brutalised. His son Flavio ? beautifully played by Matthew Hardy ? finally seizes his flag and gun, a nationalist leader in the making.
It is a fine piece of work, capitalising on the talent to hand. Ben Williamson's fleshy countertenor fills out Bertarido's humanity, with Rupert Enticknap's lighter instrument neatly deployed as his supporter Unulfo. Eleanor Dennis's fluent Rodelinda rises to an exciting top register, while Rosie Aldridge is compelling as Bertarido's side-swapping sister, Eduige. David Webb's unstable Grimoaldo complements Samuel Evans's menacing Garibaldo. In the pit, Laurence Cummings conducts an outstanding assemblage of baroque players.