Two Rodelindas

I had to sweat blood not to, but in talking about the Glyndebourne version of Rodelinda I avoided comparisons to the Bayerische Staatsoper one because I wanted to talk about what I was seeing/hearing rather than what I wasn’t. However, so as not to let all that blood go to waste, I figured I’d get this out of my system. Besides, these are the only two DVD versions of this opera that are easily available (they’re the only two I know of, at least) so why not?

Someone on YouTube said to me a while back that the Bayerische Staatsoper (I don’t know what the abbreviation is in German, so I’ll go with BSO?) version looks like a “carbon copy” of the Glyndebourne one. It’s true that the two productions do resemble one another visually – early twentieth-century setting, consistently low light levels, lots of drinking. But the concepts are fairly distinct.

The BSO one is more naturalistic – it’s ‘set’ in the 1940s in a fairly straightforward way. It’s not all literal, of course. That part at the end of Act I where Bertarido, incensed at his wife’s apparent infidelity, looks up at a window of a building in which he sees Rodelinda and Grimoaldo embracing? It took me a while before it occurred to me that what we might be seeing there is Bertarido’s fears, not anything he actually witnesses. But on the whole, this production has more of a ‘setting’ than a ‘concept’.

The Glyndebourne production, in contrast, is telling a story by means of referencing a distinct, non-opera mode of storytelling, silent film. As a result, it’s less direct and more playful, since the whole thing is operating with reference to this other distinct thing. In addition, the silent film concept influences how the acting is done and the general emotional pitch of the performance. On the whole, the tone is on the lighter end of things. Serious enough when it needs to be – there is nothing tongue in cheek about Antonacci’s “se’l mio duol”, for example, or Rodelinda and Bertarido’s Act II duet – but not at all dark.

The performance also pays a great deal of attention to the audience, with the little jokes and nudges and expressions aimed outward. The Glyndebourne production over and over acknowledges that you are there, and jokes around with you. The BSO one doesn’t – and as a result I think the BSO one is more absorbing because you aren’t reminded so often that you’re an audience.

This difference in tone between the two is also related to how the two productions treat the silent role of Flavio. In the BSO version, the kid is clearly a little overwhelmed. And, interestingly, his mother doesn’t pay much attention to him, particularly when she’s angry or miserable or anguished. One often forgets he’s there – maybe that’s the reason he picks up that gun at the end? In the Glyndebourne one, Flavio is younger and far more often the object of Rodelinda’s attention. She interacts with him during “ombre, piante” and cuddles him during “se’l mio duol,” and at the end, rather than looking about for an unattended handgun, he not only skips around scattering flowers but also wakes up the dead Garibaldo so that they can go out together and fetch the drinks cart. (Is the reanimation of the dead and drinks all around a requirement for Glyndebourne productions of Handel operas? They did the very same thing in Giulio Cesare.) In the BSO version, this silent character consistently shows how wrapped up in her own problems Rodelinda is – I mean, you get the sense that part of the reason young Flavio goes for the gun at the end might be that he learned that his ma was willing to gamble with his life for political purposes. In the Glyndebourne one, he’s too young to really get what’s going on around him, and he’s more cute than interesting.

In terms of characterization, Röschmann’s Rodelinda is a little more personally forceful, which – I think I was trying to say this before, but I didn’t quite manage it – is what gives ‘ritorna o caro’ its intensity in that production: Rodelinda has spent the previous part of the drama being as tough as she can be, and here she is anticipating relief from this burden. Then, later, in “se’l mio duol” that anticipated relief has been taken away. The various parts of the drama gel really neatly. (And in this staging, she gets to wander away slowly, alone, after “se’l mio duol,” trailing her husband’s coat behind her, which works a little better in terms of tone.)

Glyndebourne has better counter-tenors in terms of sound quality and skill. I sort of liked Christopher Robson’s Unulfo more, though, despite the problems with the singing. This is one of those tricky things where you have to decide how much you value sound over acting, or vocal performance in the strictest sense over how the portrayal fits into the production as a whole. Robson’s Unulfo I got. I liked that guy. I saw where he was coming from. And having Unulfo as the “little guy” who operates at the periphery of everyone else’s big drama worked for me. Artur Stefanowicz sounds better, without question, but his Unulfo is not as much of a recognizable individual.

I guess the upshot is that I know the BSO version isn’t perfect in every imaginable way, but there’s something about it that grabs me in a way that the Glyndebourne one doesn’t. It has a kind of straightforwardness and emotional coherence that I find really appealing.

8 thoughts on “Two Rodelindas

  1. >>Is the reanimation of the dead and drinks all around a requirement for Glyndebourne productions of Handel operas? They did the very same thing in Giulio Cesare.<<

    They also did that at the Salzburg Giulio Cesare this spring! Sounds like a good tradition, Talk about a revival!

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      1. It’s certainly not a bad tradition – in the Glyndebourne GC it was terrific (I love the part where Tolomeo, being dead, has trouble getting the waiter to serve him).

        I was tempted to reply to that YouTube comment about the “carbon copy” with “well, actually, I think they’re completely different . . . ” but I wasn’t sure I could explain succinctly enough (no one’s going to read a 1500 word comment) why I thought so, so I didn’t.

        Re: comment editing, I checked WordPress’s help page and they basically said “no you cannot edit comments on another person’s blog.” Which is a bit obnoxious, but that’s their rule, I guess.

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  2. I read your thoughts above with great interest, and feel compelled to add a few of my own.

    I certainly think that the YouTube commentator has not watched the whole of the BSO production as he could not be farther from the truth in his comment that david Alden’s production is a carbon copy of the Glynditz show. I had the pleasure of seeing the Glyndebourne production twice; once when it was new at the festival, and again a couple of months later when I was touring with Glyndebourne Touring Opera.

    The references to black & white silent movie are very strong in the Glyndebourne production. It was in its way quite stylised and often humurous in the acting style, though I felt that this was partly due to the concept and the desire of the French directors to go for slight overacting sometimes as a gesture to silent movie style. I certainly felt that the show benefited from some of the cast changes of the touring production. Although I love Antonacci I felt Lisa Milne’s Rodelinda was more human, and Paul Nilon’s Grimoaldo showed a greater dramatic and vocal virtuosity (and more risk) that would blossom to leave its mark in the Munich BSO production 4 years later. It was certainly dark, and visually oppressive in its intimacy (I mean that in a positive sense).

    The BSO production by contrast was bigger (no surprise since the Nationaltheater stage is about the size of 4 Glyndebourne stages and more); more imposing visually (the massive walls, the bridge span, the receding perspective giant statues, etc), indicative of the post world war II authoritarianism (as opposed to the 1910/20s greyscale cinematic style of Glyndebourne’s show); more colourful (the rain scene in Act 2 was mostly orange light), and rooted in a much deeper theatrical style. We were encouraged by Alden to play our characters from the heart, to go on their journeys with all the pain and risk involved. We were, to put it bluntly, encouraged to act (no Regietheater there!), to be the persons we were playing.

    Equally, we were directed – and I mean that in the best sense of the word. Alden is a director who not only knows every note of the score (he is incredibly musical) but could also (and often did) sing a role and improv all the decorations of a da capo! His style of working is rooted in what a singer can bring to a role as an actor as well as a singer, and he expects his performers to really explore their inner selves as well as their character. He provokes performers in to opening their minds and souls to the story telling. Singers that tend not to work well or get on with him tend to be those who believe a director is there to tell them where to go, sit, stand, what to think, etc. Those who are unwilling to trust in him are missing the point.

    The world Alden and Steinberg created in the BSO production was a dangerous world, a world where even humour had an acidic slapstick element that left a sour taste in the mouth when you laughed. I felt, despite there being moments where it just didn’t seem to hit the nail on the head, that overall the BSO production came closer to the pain and cruelty of Rodelinda’s world and that it almost perfectly captured the irony and tragedy of the story.

    So I am mystified as to how anyone who watches and pays attention to both productions can even begin to believe that one is a carbon copy of the other. I have a feeling our YouTube commentator really didn’t watch the BSO production.

    I won’t comment on the singing, I have too much respect for my colleagues to discuss my thoughts publicly. But I would agree with anyone who didn’t like my singing in the BSO version; it was a bad night unfortunately (maybe I was beginning to feel a little old, or going through a mid-life vocal crisis. Who knows!), and with live tv recording/broadcast it is just too expensive to correct when there is only time and money to take one performance. My bad luck 😦
    But thanks for your generous comments 🙂
    Ks Christopher Robson

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