Thursday, September 22, 2005

opera blog

High Culture
The Child Bride and I went to the San Francisco Opera tonight – Handel’s little-performed RODELINDA. I came to believe it’s little-performed for a reason. Aside from a very lovely duet at the end of Act 2, the whole opera is just a series of arias. The music is wonderful, but it was like listening to one monologue after another.

And even for an opera, the plot is convoluted. There’s a deposed king, Bertarido that everybody thinks is dead, but isn’t really, and he’s returned to Lombardy from wherever he was to…. well, I don’t know really.

Bertarido’s first aria (sung by the incredible counter-tenor David Daniels) takes place at his own tomb; he’s all broody that everybody thinks he’s dead. So why doesn’t he just tell people (or his wife and son anyway, if he fears for his life) that he’s still alive? I don’t know.

A minion of the new king - who’s infatuated with Rodelinda, Bertarido’s “widow,” for no apparent reason – persuades Rodelinda to marry the new king, by threatening to kill her son if she doesn’t. Bertarido, in hiding, observes this and is horrified by her disloyalty - though why is remarrying disloyal if she thinks he’s dead? I don’t know.

Later, in the second act, she agrees to marry the new king, but only if he kills her son because she (as the program puts it) “cannot be the mother to the rightful heir to the throne and the wife of its usurper at the same time.” Clearly, it’s a ploy to get out of marrying the guy, but the logic escaped me.

At the end of the second act, Rodelinda and Bertarido re-unite, but the new king catches them together. Bertarido reveals his identity, but Rodelinda tries to insist that he’s not her husband. But if the new king usurped the throne, wouldn’t he at least know what the deposed king looked like?

The libretto was exceedingly stilted. Narrative-wise, it seemed like it took a half hour for a person to go through a door, but mere seconds to declare undying vengeance on somebody or other, only to take it back in the next aria.

Then there was the Concept. Perhaps realizing that the opera consisted mainly of confused royals talking to themselves, the producers decided to couch the story in the tropes of Film Noir. Now, I am second to none in my admiration of Film Noir - I even wore a fedora to the performance! But if ever a story wanted to lend itself less to the Film Noir style, RODELINDA would be the story to beat.

In the first place, RODELINDA does not take place in an urban environment. It takes place mainly in a palace. The first scene revealed a brick wall and a series of windows, through which the characters skulked like figures out of METROPOLIS. It wasn’t a palace – it was a depot! Without a train! And outside the windows, other figures skulked, sliding behind the foreground skulkers like people on a ledge. And they all moved in slow motion. This wasn’t Film Noir! Film Noir is snappy! This was German Expressionism!

In the second place, if you’re going to have a goddam king, give the goddam king a crown. Kings don’t wear fedoras! Unless you want to translate the whole thing into a gangster milieu - but since there’s only six parts (and Flavio, the deposed king’s son, who doesn’t sing), that’s not much of a damn milieu. As the Child Bride’s co-worker said to me (she was sitting on my right), “I want robes. They just look like middle-aged opera singers.”

In the third place, the second scene supposedly takes place outside the palace, in the courtyard (although Bertarido’s tomb was there as well – represented by a series of “statues” – which made things confusing). But the walls of the palace contained windows that were all boarded up, which made the palace look like the Book Depository at Dealey Plaza.

In the fourth place, there were attempts at comic relief. When you have massive gray sets that combine elements of Edward Hopper and Otto Hunte (look him up, you lazy bastards), it’s probably a bad idea to introduce old time vaudeville physical humor into the mix.

There was a wonderful weird little dance in the second act, however, performed by a group of dancers in fedoras, with cigarettes, in the background as the new king sang about how, despite Rodelinda’s insistence that he kill her son, he still loved her. But again, that didn’t have anything to do with anything. It sure got the Child Bride giggling though.

How did the old bones that keep opera alive take to these newfangled post-modernisms? The matron in front of us was heard to utter at intermission: “I think the sets are weird.”

We left after two acts. The thing runs three and a half hours!


Blogger Paul said...

The Met in NYC revived "Rodelinda" last season specifically to suit Renee Fleming. They did the same thing a few years before that, producing "Il Pirata" by Bellini so that she could spend the last half of the third and final act singing onstage all by herself. There are reasons why some operas have languished - unperformed - for decades or even longer. You've identified one of them. Good job!

10:51 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home