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.