(Previous section here.)
Eduige is an unusual opera character – a woman who is motivated not by the power of love, but by love of power. She actually says this at one point, that she is motivated by a desire for power, which I didn’t notice until I watched the opera again this time, and I was so surprised that I went back to look at the Italian to make sure there wasn’t a mistake in the English. There wasn’t. Of course, this is still an eighteenth-century opera, so she has to get power via seduction and manipulation.
Felicity Palmer is not an older singer playing a younger part – I do think that this Eduige is the age she appears to be. Palmer’s voice has more character than straight-up beauty, but there is a precision to the singing, and to the acting too, that I liked. Eduige is power-hungry and bitter and drinks a little too much, and is aware that she’s on the edge of being a bit of a joke. But she manages not to be – for one thing, she’s the one who sets in motion the plan to spring Bertarido from his cargo container dungeon, after all.* But also, it’s that Palmer manages to project both Eduige’s weaknesses and Eduige’s awareness of her own weaknesses.
Speaking of jokes. We should talk about Unulfo. I was a bit relieved to watch this DVD again, because it supplanted my most recent memory of Christopher Robson, which was him as Polinesso doing deeply unpleasant-looking things to Dalinda in Ariodante. The singing is not great – it’s not a sound I love to begin with, and here he sounds a little ragged around the edges. And as mentioned earlier, this character is the ‘comic relief’ and at times, e.g. with the tape recorder in Act I, it doesn’t work.
But at times it really does. In Act II, Garibaldo bullies Unulfo by ripping some papers out of his briefcase and stuffing them into Unulfo’s mouth. Later, in Act III, when Garibaldo menaces him again, Unulfo snatches out a piece of paper own his own and stuffs it into his own mouth, as if to say he refuses to give Garibaldo the satisfaction of doing it again – it’s a little moment of defiance that is both funny and poignant. Unulfo really is the little guy, trying to do the right thing. Both his ‘things may be looking up after all’ arias are nice – “fra tempeste” in Act II, and especially “un zeffiro spirò” in Act III. This latter is literally about how a breeze has come to calm him and he feels hopeful, but the whole time, Unulfo is fidgeting with the key to the secret passage that Eduige has given him, and looking a little anxious, and steeling himself with a cigarette and adjustments to his tie for the big adventure to come. As I said, there’s something wonderfully poignant about this.
Even the part where Bertarido accidentally stabs him, which is played for humor, really is funny. I had to work out why the humor worked, because you wouldn’t think it would, you know? I think it’s because there’s a sort of self-awareness to it. Unulfo is aware that he is a little guy on the outside of the grand world of love and power and threats in which Rodelinda and Bertarido operate.
And this is not the only such moment in the opera. Unulfo’s ‘little guy’ moments are accompanied by what they do with Rodelinda and Bertarido’s son Flavio. Here, the kid is a young teenager (the actor’s name is Elias Maurides) and his typical reaction to all the violence and high drama his parents go through is to hug his knees to his chest and hide his face – for example, when Rodelinda is in the middle of “se’l mio duol” he just curls up and sits there. At the end, when all is well again and the main pair are embracing, it’s Grimoaldo who goes over and gently pulls the boy out of this posture, gives him a hug, and returns him to his parents. The high drama of the core of the story is not the whole story – there are people who are a little outside of it like Unulfo, and people who are frightened and overwhelmed by it, like Flavio. This is of a piece with what I said earlier about updating the setting making the stakes seem smaller and the characters more human. Questioning or undercutting all that big emotion, just a little, makes it all the more effective.
It is also of a piece with the ending. After the final chorus, the last thing we see is Flavio picking up a gun and pointing with it. The boy has learned how the world works. Rodelinda and Bertarido’s return to power and their unexamined conviction that they deserve it is being undercut – these are mobsters, after all. Are we really supposed to be rooting for them?
(Update 8/13/12 – a bit more about this production here.)
*This is slightly off topic, but the Eduige/Unulfo Great Escape Plot is one of several “a woman and a hobbit!” moments in Handel’s operas, isn’t it? It reminds me of when Sesto and Cornelia combine forces to murder Achilla in Giulio Cesare. Women don’t do grand things like this entirely on their own – they get help from a young or low-status man.