Separating Art from “Eurotrash”: S.F.’s “Rodelinda” & Stuttgart’s “Alcina”

In her exit interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, before she left the San Francisco Opera at the end of the Fall 2005 season, former General Director Pamela Rosenberg responded to the charge that she served up “Eurotrash” opera. “I keep telling people they have to sort it out”, she exclaimed. ‘There are so many different styles of Eurotrash. That drove me nuts.” Whether it drove her nuts, both Rosenberg detractors and supporters are convinced that it drove her out of San Francisco.

I assume the Chronicle unfairly abbreviated her remarks, but they do raise the issue that the term is used pretty loosely. Perhaps this website can help “sort it out”. As it turns out I was preparing comments on two productions of Handel operas from the Rosenberg era – “David Alden’s ‘Rodelinda'” from Fall, 2005 and Jossi Wieler’s ‘Alcina” from Fall, 2002. These provide an interesting framework for a discussion as to how “Eurotrash” should be defined.

The 2005 production introduced Director David Alden to the San Francisco Opera, although he has a substantial reputation from his work in Chicago, Houston, the Met and Europe. His “Rodelinda” is a co-production with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, which is his principal artistic home.

[Below: Rodelinda (Catherine Naglestad) inherits the responsibility to take care of her family; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Alden’s production team includes the set designer, Paul Steinberg (who does have some experience with the San Francisco Opera), and costume designer Buki Shiff.

The Origins of Handel’s and Alden’s ‘Rodelinda”

The story of ‘Rodelinda” derives from the work of an eighth century Italian cleric and later employee of Charlemagne, Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon), who attempted a history of those ruling families of the Longobard (eventually ‘”Lombard” – the English cognate would be “long-beard”) Goths who were in power between the late sixth and early eighth centuries.

Although not a model for contemporary historical research, Paulus’ work provides some illumination of events in what have been called the ‘Dark Ages” of pre-medieval Europe, and his work was considered as the historical authority on the early Lombardy for several centuries. Virtually every character in Rodelinda appears to have an historical counterpart.

Almost 800 years later, French dramatist Pierre Corneille created his tragedy Pertharite, roi des Lombards from elements of Paulus’ history, altering for dramatic purposes many of the events Paulus described. Corneille’s dramas, of course, were a prime source for opera libretti, any of which, in those times, might be used by several composers. Eventually Corneille’s Pertharite (re-Italianized as Bertarido) was fashioned into a libretto (now centered on Bertarido’s wife and entitled “Rodelinda, regina de Longobardi.”)

[Below: the portrait of Pierre Corneille by an unknown artist; edited image, based on the portrait at the Musee du Chateau, Versailles.]

Rather few Langobard families have excited the interest of later centuries, and a millennium passed by before Corneille decided to develop their story line. With over 350 years separating Corneille’s play and 280 years separating Handel’s opera from the present day, modern production designers need to have a lot of imagination to decide how to stage the opera. You can create a pre-medieval Lombard village, or locate it in a 17th century Royal Court (in deference to Corneille), or an 18th century Georgian setting (in deference to Handel), or try to find a basis for 20th or 21st century themes for the production.

Alden surveyed the story line, which is preceded by a King Lear-like division of his realm between two brothers, one of whom has been replaced by a usurper (Grimoaldo) who deposes the other brother Bertarido in an inter-family struggle to bring the realm back to its original state. The latter’s wife (Rodelinda) and son Flavio are in mortal danger, with the villainous Garibaldo doing Grimoaldo’s strategic thinking.

A production of ‘Rodelinda” at Glyndebourne (available on a Netflix-accessible DVD) set forth the idea of presenting the opera as a silent movie (although only one of the principals, the heir Flavio, is a mute part.) Longobard Milan is time-shifted to a Milan where almost all the men are dressed in military uniforms and carry pistols. Rodelinda and her sister-in-law Eduige are costumed as silent screen stars, the latter wearing a tiara.

Rodelinda’s opening aria (by Anna Caterina Antonacci) appears to do homage to Gloria Swanson’s parody in the movie Sunset Boulevard of her own silent screen acting. At times during the opera, the acting is natural and affecting, but sometimes it is nonsensical (at one point Bertarido, his aide Unulfo and sister Eduige sit on a bench doing a choreographed hand-jive).

But the final scene alerts us that the whole evening is meant just to have been a bit of fun. The boy Flavio resurrects the slain villain Garibaldo (played, as he was San Francisco, by Umberto Chiummo), they run off-stage and, as if we are attending a New Year’s Eve “Fledermaus”, return with a cart of champagne, which the boy serves to all the principals in the cast).

Alden and team decided for the San Francisco/Munich collaboration it should be set as a “film noir” gangster movie from the 1940s. His concept envisions Rodelinda as a Mafia wife, who, as Alden expressed in an interview for the San Francisco Opera program: ‘Say a purge has taken place and . . . [Rodelinda is] suddenly the only one left, and whereas she never would have had anything to do with running the family business before, now she must take over the reins and protect those around her.” One envisions Carmela, the matriarch played by Edie Falco on The Sopranos, having to take control of the mob’s affairs.

Unfortunately, much of the San Francisco Opera audience is suffering fatigue from the high percentage of frankly unorthodox Rosenberg era productions of operas and the bad memories of her 2002 mounting of Stuttgart’s production of Handel’s “Alcina” left many in no mood for charity towards packaging “Rodelinda” as a Mafiosa.

Sorting Out the “Eurotrash”

Unlike many of the productions associated with the five-year era of General Manager Pamela Rosenberg, the Alden production actually had some artistic qualities – the sets were, more often than not, interesting, the stage directions given the characters of the drama (once we accepted the premise that we were envisioning a spat between Mafia dons) made sense, and all of the principals were able to handle their acting assignments, while performing what in this century constitutes world class Handelian singing. Even some humor was occasionally in evidence. Quite unlike the Glyndebourne production, at the end little Flavio picks up a pistol, points it off-stage, and makes clear that he is prepared to be groomed as a future don.

Since all of the singing parts have more than one aria each (Rodelinda herself has EIGHT!), this is an ensemble opera where everyone must pull his or her weight. For the record, Rodelinda Team San Francisco did just that with Catherine Naglestad (title role), David Daniels (Bertarido), Paul Nilon (Grimoaldo), Umberto Chiummo (Garibaldo), Phyllis Pancella (Eduige) and Gerald Thompson (Unulfo). Thompson, an Adler Fellow this year at the San Francisco Opera, will certainly take is place in the world’s suddenly bountiful supply of counter-tenors available for baroque opera.

Contrast this with the Stuttgart “Alcina”, whose production also is recorded on a Netflix-accessible DVD. Travel conflicts had prevented me from actually attending the performance in San Francisco on my subscription series. Other subscribers to the opera sitting nearby have chided me for escaping a punishment that they had to suffer.

Ariosto, Meet Almodovar

The story of Alcina is one of the adventures of a group of knights and their fellow travelers recorded in Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th century masterwork Orlando Furioso. The characters Orlando, Rinaldo, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Oronte, Oberto, Alcina, Angelica, Morgana, Ariodante, and others appear in various episodes, many of which are the ultimate source for Baroque period opera libretti. I believe firmly that all of the operas (though not necessarily the productions) derived from Orlando Furioso will be much enjoyable if one spends a bit of time learning about who these characters are and how they interrelate in Ariosto’s sprawling work.

[Below: Titian’s “The Man with a Blue Sleeve”, considered by most authority’s to be Ludovico Ariosto; edited image of the portrait in the National Gallery, London.]

For the Stuttgart production, these knights of 16th century fantasy are all time-shifted to a claustrophobic single room set (designed by Anna Viebrock) whose walls are papered with a garish design. The wallpaper is peeling in parts of the room. Old style flourescent lights can be seen. Broken furniture and a French horn are scattered in corners. The scene is dominated by a very large picture in the back wall, or perhaps it is a giant plasma TV, through which characters not currently singing occasionally can be seen.

Sometimes the characters on the front stage interact with those in the picture with coordinated gestures to suggest the picture at that moment is a mirror. At other times they step out of the picture and intervene with whatever action is in the room, a la Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (and several other movies, as well as Beaumont and Fletcher’s Elizabethan comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle).

The “Alcina” principals begin to relate to each other in inexplicable ways, as if a half dozen or so randomly selected characters from two decades of Pedro Almodovar films have taken over the bodies of the Ariosto characters. For persons who would find this idea intriguing, I would recommend securing (or, better yet, renting) the DVD before one invests in a ticket for a live performance. We will take a single example from the DVD, admittedly a very bizarre moment from an already weird production. We will consider what happens when Oronte gives Ruggiero some advice about women.

First, some more background. One of the conventions of Handel’s time was the ABA aria, where the ‘A” melody is sung to express one thought, then a ‘B” melody is heard, where the sentiment expressed is altered, returning to the ‘A” melody (sometimes with the addition of vocal pyrotechnics).

Swiss tenor Rolf Romei, the pony-tailed Oronte in the Stuttgart performance taped for the DVD, has a lithe physique that might win him entrance to a casting call for a Calvin Klein underwear commercial. How do we know that? Wait a while, there’s more.

Alice Coote was quite effectively costumed (in a dashingly Continental men’s suit) as Ruggiero, the knight ensnared as the current lover of the witch/enchantress Alcina. The androgynous Coote might have made a much more believable Victor/Victoria than Julie Andrews, who played the title role(s) in the film of that name.

Ruggiero (Coote) is pursued by his betrothed Bradamante, who has disguised herself as another Ariosto knight (although in this version she just wears a man’s suit and horned-rim glasses). Oronte (Romei), observing that Ruggiero is a bit confused by the Alcina-Bradamante rivalry, decides to give him some advice about women – even though we are pretty sure that Ruggiero knows quite a lot about women already.

Thus begins Oronte’s aria. In the Jossi Wieler staging of the first “A” section of the ABA aria, Romei wanders about the set, kicking a few stage props (but why?). Then comes the ‘B” section, where he begins to wax eloquent about feminine wiles. Romei pulls his shirt out of his pants and loosens his pony-tail. Next he takes off his trousers to reveal his form-fitting underpants.

A bemused Ruggiero takes his seat on a step that is under the back wall picture. As the ‘A” melody resumes, Oronte now crawls toward the seated Ruggiero, takes off his socks and with a strip-tease flair throws one onto Ruggiero. Next he sticks his bare foot onto Ruggiero’s genitals. Ruggiero chuckles and pushes him away.

One is reminded of the Wayne Myers film Wayne’s World, that extended the popular Myers-Dana Carvey Saturday Night Live skit into a full length movie. In one scene Myers jumps onto a bed with his girl friend in his underwear and a message flashes across the screen that we are witnessing a “gratuitous sex scene”. (Myers later confessed that he found this scene personally embarrassing; what must Rolf Romei, not to speak of his family, have thought about Oronte horsing around in his underwear in the presence of another knight?)

There are a number of opportunities in opera to display truly bizarre behavior – Salome, Herod and Herodias form a pretty psychotic trio – but one only has to go a little into Oscar Wilde’s libretto or Richard Strauss’ music to get that insight. Sometimes it takes a masterful operatic director to draw out underlying perversion: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s “Rigoletto” in San Francisco highlighted the Duke’s Rape of Gilda, thus making Gilda’s later sacrifice of her life for the Duke even more psychologically illuminating.

But there is nothing in the source material, the libretto, nor the production notes that explains Oronte’s behavior towards Ruggiero in the Stuttgart rendition of ‘Alcina”, and the production gives no insight into the story, the libretto, nor advances the cause of promoting Handelian opera. The Stuttgart “Alcina” appears to be a candidate for the honor of being considered gratuitous “Eurotrash”.

On the other hand, David Alden’s San Francisco-Munich production of “Rodelinda”, despite the exotic idea of translating 7th century Longobard politics into mid-20th century Mafia struggles, does appear to have an internal logic, and might fairly be considered an artistic endeavor.

Production designer Paul Steinberg, who had created a fairly traditional reading of Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” for San Francisco Opera in 1993, returned to the War Memorial Opera House for the first time in over a dozen years, with a reputation much enhanced by a series of productions in Europe re-interpreting operas. (His only other association with SFO was a production of 1996’s “Harvey Milk” at the Orpheum Theatre during the season during which the Opera House closed for Loma Prieta Earthquake repairs.)

Obviously aware of the controversies that so many of the avant-garde productions mounted by Pamela Rosenberg during her six year tenure here, Steinberg noted that European audiences and critics were willing to do the work to understand the concepts that opera producers and directors are trying to put forth (after all, he notes, these persons have worked on the productions for a year or more), even if it means returning for further performances of works whose productions they do not initially ‘get”.

(At $380 a pair for 2005-06 season Orchestra seats, then, San Francisco’s “Fidelio”, whose production can be instantly comprehended, is clearly a better bargain than San Francisco’s ‘Forza del Destino”, whose production still might make no sense to a couple attending the opera, even if the couple were to spend $1140 to attend three performances of the work.)

Alden and Steinberg have taken the trouble to lay out a rationale for their particular approach to the immensely melodious Handel opera, “Rodelinda”. It is fair to categorize it as an artistic endeavor, rather than Eurotrash. However, with both the Glyndebourne and San Francisco/Munich productions exploiting the idea of visualizing “Rodelinda” as an early 20th century film experience, this would be a good time to encourage new productions to explore early Lombardy or Georgian London for the site and time to place this story, rather than what will surely be the proposed reconceptualization of “Rodelinda” as the long-awaited Godfather IV.