Rodelinda battles it out in my head with Giulio Cesare and Alcina as my favorite Handel opera. I’ve seen two other versions of it on DVD, and heard two more on CD, and watching this performance from the Met made me realize that one of the other versions I’ve seen is actually even more interesting, in retrospect, than I thought it was at the time. But that’s not important right now.
This is not a production of Rodelinda that takes any risks. The story takes place in early eighteenth-century Milan, and the whole thing is extremely easy on the eyes. The action begins in the bedroom where the captive Rodelinda is asleep. Her son Flavio wakes up first and goes scampering about the room looking for his toys; between the second and third sections of the overture Rodelinda cries out as if she’s having a bad dream, and it’s this dream that seems to wake her after the third section. The use of the kid in this first scene seems oddly light-hearted, but the action is not a bad fit for the music, which is warm and genial and dignified. And Flavio’s toy soldiers do not go to waste – Rodelinda brandishes one of them at Grimoaldo after “l’empio rigor del fato.” (It looks a little silly, but in her defense, she’s got a limited number of things in that room she can brandish.)
This set later slides away to the left to reveal a courtyard and stables, and there is also a library that appears in a similar manner; often the performers are basically walking in place as the sets move. It’s a nice effect – and then they pull out all the stops in Act III and place Bertarido’s dungeon literally underneath the courtyard: the latter, with Grimoaldo on it, rises out of sight to bring up the basement below. And since they can, I guess, there’s a real live horse, too. It is brought in, Garibaldo rides it off the stage, and we never see it again. (It’s as if someone had handed you a hundred dollar bill, and then said – wait, hold on, and then gave you a quarter too. I guess it’s nice, but it feels unnecessary.)
The horse aside, there is some other material in this performance that I have never seen before. The recitative before Grimoaldo’s “io già t’amai” in Act I is different from the version I’m used to. It’s the conversation between Eduige, who is on stage here much earlier in the scene than I expected, and Grimoaldo, and although musically the changes don’t add up to any significant difference that I can specify, the difference is part and parcel of a more obvious dramatic point. This is ultimately a very smooth and sweet-tempered take on this opera, and part of the restoration of order at the end is that Grimoaldo and Eduige decide they love one another after all; this Eduige (Stephanie Blythe, who does a fantastic job) spends a fair amount of time pining for Grimoaldo. (Unlike the Bayerische Staatsoper version, in which Felicity Palmer’s drunk-and-mean-old-floozy Eduige responds to Grimoaldo’s offer of marriage at the end with a “ha!” that communicates, quite succinctly, “no way in hell, you sadsack.” I found I kind of enjoyed that.)
Eduige also gets a recitative at the beginning of Act II that I had not heard before. In fact, the whole first section of that act was so different from the version in my head that afterward, I went back and watched part of the BSO version again to make sure I was not in fact nuts. I am not nuts. The two are distinctly different. The libretto is mostly the same (the English translations are more different from one another than the Italian texts, as far as I can tell, but the Italian texts are not identical either) but the drama is strikingly, startlingly different. In the Met’s version, Eduige and Rodelinda are sympathetic the whole way through, and go around squeezing one another’s hands for comfort; while Eduige sings “de’ miei scherni per far le vendette” Rodelinda wanders off to find a book for Flavio (the scene takes place in the library) and returns during the B section for a little more commiseration; in the BSO version, these two women at this point appear to hate one another’s guts, and Eduige’s aria is both a drunken taunt aimed at Rodelinda and a snarl of rage at being mocked. Rodelinda in that case does not fetch a book; rather, she gives Eduige a look of icy contempt and then walks across her fur coat.
Here is the Met’s version of the aria.
Stephanie Blythe is great here (and I like the dymanic contrasts in the orchestral playing in the opening bars) – there’s something about the phrasing in the B section, around the line “dell’ empio farò” that really got me. I was quite happy that Eduige got a brief little aria (after she discovers her brother Bertarido is alive) that is not in any of the other versions I’ve heard.
(Next section here.)