13 Jul 2011

Rinaldo at Glyndebourne

Handel’s Rinaldo at the Glyndebourne Festival is a triumph in musical terms. Don’t miss it when it appears at the BBC Proms this summer in concert performance, because some of the singing is very good indeed.

The catch is that the staging is bizarre. Baroque is, by nature, bizarre and “fantastikal” to use antique terminology. Baroque audiences went to the opera to be stunned by spectacular feats and outrageous plots. Rinaldo has inherent dramatic promise — malevolent magic, beauties and heroes, exotic strangers, sex, battlefields and scene changes so extreme that they couldn’t be done literally, especially given the limits of baroque stage production. In many ways, baroque audiences had greater tolerance for fantasy than we do now.

Rinaldo is set in the Crusades but has nothing to do with history, religion or even common sense. By removing the hero Rinaldo, the defenders of Jerusalem think they can end the war. So Almira magics him off to an enchanted island, far from the deserts around Jerusalem. Strange Realpolitik. Goffredo and other Christians rescue him and all ends well.

So why the literal staging in this new production directed by Robert Carsen, designed by Gideon Davey? It predicates on the notion that Rinaldo is a schoolboy in a boarding school, who gets bullied by his classmates and caned by his teachers. Indeed, caning recurs frequently in this production, which does make one wonder. The schoolboy concept is largely irrelevant to the very adult, sophisticated nature of Handel’s narrative, and feels forced and infantile.

The sirens don’t need to be coy schoolgirls, and the sight of Almirena in a maxi skirt gymslip is just absurd. The best images would work fine without any schoolboy silliness. For example, Rinaldo and his friends march off not on horses but on bicycles, Rinaldo suspended in the air on high wires. Had they been dressed as warriors, the irony would have been even more pointedly irreverent.

Although Rinaldo is funny, its deeper levels would not have been lost on baroque audiences. Handel, through Torquato Tasso, is also obliquely mocking the futility of war and power games. If even Almira the dominatrix Queen can make up with ferocious philanderer Argante, there’s hope for all.

Ottavio Dantone conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment, one of the finest specialist period instrument orchestras in the world. Extremely high playing standards, though I would have liked Dantone to have injected more punch overall, though the Battaglia was vivid. Handel’s instrumentation is lively and inventive. Harpsichord, not only as continuo but as a quirky voice in itself, and in this acoustic, assertively clear. Good growling percussion and brass for thunder and battle. I was so intrigued by the bird-like instrumentation around Almirena’s “Augelletti, che cantate”, that I went up to the pit at the interval to check what it was.The musician wasn’t there but other members of the orchestra were enthusiastic. “It’s a sopranino”, someone said. “Not a flute, not a recorder”.

300cbc201106270574.gifBrenda Rae as Armida with Glyndebourne Chorus and dancers

Sonia Prina sang Rinaldo. She’s a very experienced Handel singer, so the production was perhaps designed around her, much as the recent Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger von von N├╝rnberg reviewed here, may have been created to enhance Gerald Finley’s voice. She and director Carsen have worked together before. Prina’s short, compact and sassy, so looks convincing as a schoolboy, Hers isn’t a transcendentally glowing Rinaldo but she has stamina. In “Cara Sposa”, she stretched the long vowels sturdily.

As Armida as Dominatrix, Brenda Rae looked the part in tight black rubber and vertiginous stilettos. The characterization made an asset of the sharpness at her top, but attention should be on the singing, not the fetish.

300cbc201106270869.gifSonia Prina as Rinaldo and Brenda Rae as Armida

Argante can be a relatively small part, but Luca Pisaroni made it central, by the sheer force of personality in his singing. His voice has great depth and range and is used intelligently. Pisaroni understands the purpose of the elaborate ornamentations Handel wants in the part. When he sings “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto”, his variations are richly roccoco, emphasizing Argante’s status as ruler, and the complexity of his character. Thus, when Argante is humbled by his feelings for Almirena, Pisaroni’s voice becomes gracious and tender. Pisaroni doesn’t sing when he’s strung up by Armida, but his body language conveys feeling, twitching with anguish, even though his face is hidden. Restored, he becomes the virile, dignified leader he was before, as Pisaroni’s firm, well modulated singing in the Act 3 duet demonstrates. This Argante is more than a match for Armida. (Please read the interview he gave Opera Today here).

Varduhi Abrahamyan sang Goffredo. Being an admirer of countertenors, I was delighted by William Tower’s Mago and Tim Mead’s Eustazio.

Perhaps there’s a much better production inside this Glyndebourne Rinaldo, waiting, like the eponymous hero, to be set free. Handel’s music is inherently dramatic, so the concert performance planned for the BBC Proms on 25th August will be a much better opportunity to appreciate this production. It’s being broadcast live, online, on demand and internationally. A DVD is also planned, and the filming may reshape the staging so it comes over more effectively, enhancing the musical values oif this production.

For more information, read the Glyndebourne Festival site and the BBC Proms site.

Anne Ozorio