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 power and pathos, jam-packed with some of the most sumptuous, sensuous, heart-on-sleeve arias ever written.

What no Handel opera can claim is a simple storyline. There is 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 junkie'. Chris Rolls - a sharp-minded, soft-spoken young director from Lichfield, Staffordshire - describes his priority as "a decent case of what-happens-next"; that's what keeps 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 Bertarido, king of Milan, is dead, including his wife Rodelinda. However, he is in hiding while the evil Grimoaldo (who is engaged to Bertarido's sister Eduige) tries to overthrow the throne and force Rodelinda to marry him while he is 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 lady wins through and rightful order is restored.

Rolls insists it is possible to tell it straight. "I think all great storytelling comes from character," he says. "I am addicted to TV series The Killing at the moment. The first series is 20 hours long, yet you really, really want to know what is 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 is 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 is not always what we really mean. In opera the words and music can both be disingenuous to varying and conflicting degrees - so much for straightforward, but it is 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 is always an aria or a recitative that reveals them. Garibaldo is pretty Machiavellian, but there are fleeting glimpses where he is also screwed up and vulnerable. Those are the moments we have to hone in on."

The fact 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 there won't be a full orchestra (Scottish Opera has cut the score to a bare-bones trio of cello, violin and harpsichord) so that makes Rolls's job even harder: often it is 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 says. "I can make my way through a vocal score, but mostly I treat an opera as I would a play."

He has 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 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 is possible to do both. As long as you are taking people somewhere where they are desperate to know what happens next, then you can be as wilfully conceptual as you like. Maybe it is Shakespeare's fault that in this country we are 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 are 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.