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Brenda Rae as Armida [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]
29 Aug 2011

BBC Prom 55: Rinaldo

It’s becoming rather a fashion to set operas in English public schools.

G. F. Handel: Rinaldo

Rinaldo: Sonia Prina; Goffredo: Varduhi Abrahamyan; Eustazio: Tim Mead; Almirena: Anett Fritsch; Armida: Brenda Rae; Argante: Luca Pisaroni; Christian Magician: William Towers; Herald: Oliver Mercer; Woman: Rhian Lewis. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Ottavio Dantone. Stage Director: Bruno Ravella. Director: Robert Carsen. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday 25th August 2011.

Above: Brenda Rae as Armida [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.


First there was Christopher Alden’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at ENO, and now Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo, first seen at Glyndebourne earlier this season, and presented in a semi-staged version by Bruno Ravella at the Albert Hall.

I found this production both troublesome and intriguing, at times conceptually irritating but always musically satisfying.

The distractions began during the overture, when the grace and elegance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the sensuous baton of Ottavio Dantone was rather brutally shattered by schoolboy tussles, as a gang of bullies sought to deprive the hapless Rinaldo of his cherished portrait of his beloved, Almirena, that he has secretly stashed in his school-desk.

At times, such distractions became more destructive, undermining plot and characterisation. It’s hard to be a convincing Crusading hero when you’re encumbered by an outsize satchel, have your bottom spanked by a sadistic schoolmarm, and, rather than a chariot and steed, your transport into battle is a bicycle with a dodgy headlamp and a puncture. And, it’s even worse when you don’t even get the chance to draw your sword to defend your true love against the dastardly forces of your evil enemy, because you’re too busy ‘making hay’ behind the bike sheds with the innocent lass to notice you’re surrounded.

Costumes, and props, were deliberately disconcerting but proved confusing. Uniformed schoolboys clashed with turban-clad Arabs — were we supposed to imagine Western involvement in contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts? And, one doesn’t usually find flashing scimitars and lacrosse sticks clashing as weapons on the same field of war. A PVC-clad dominatrix towering in her Louboutins; academic big-wigs in gowns and mortars; demure pinafores; gleaming bronze breastplates: nothing quite added up. In Afghanistan, they hide suicide bombs under their burkas; here, Armida’s female ‘press gang’ whisked off their shapeless hide-alls to reveal the hitched skirts and up-turned colours of the St. Trinian’s elite, a veritable harem of lacrosse-swinging ladettes.

Never mind. There were some deft directorial and visual touches: projected images and text — declarations and prophecies — were atmospheric and tartly informative respectively. And, the light comic ambience wryly emphasised the mixture of fairytale, fantasy and romance which the opera embraces. If one closed one’s eyes, great delights awaited.

Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo may have been a little underpowered to begin with, but she exhibited genuine musical intelligence and vocal stamina in shaping and sustaining this role. Her sweet, warm tone was matched by the breathtaking ease with which she despatched the coloratura challenges — surely Handel didn’t intend to look and sound that easy! The Act 1 ‘Caro sposa’ was superb. Given the formal stature of the aria, Prina had the sense to begin with understatement, the stillness of the long unfolding lines hinting at despair without over-dramatising. The vocal line was effectively reinforced by plaintive strings: a gentle walking bass coloured by affective gestures in the upper strings. Using text repetition and musical sequence to slowly build up emotional energy, Prina exquisitely and touchingly revealed Rinaldo’s torment.

Varduhi Abrahamyan demonstrated how to deliver recitative meaningfully, as Goffredo, and her arias were characterised by evenness of line and some impressive breath control. As Armida, Brenda Rae seemed to relish the raunchiness of the role a trifle too much to begin with, forgetting to focus on the music itself; leaps were a little insecure in her opening aria and at the top her brightness was occasionally tinged with shrillness. But, she settled down when she realised that she could easily project into the vast hall, growing in confidence and elegance throughout the performance.

Anett Fritsch’s soothing lower register was ideal for the placid, tender Almirena, and she blended meltingly in her duets with Rinaldo. Countertenor Tim Mead made a strong musical and dramatic impression as Eustazio, with vivid vigorous articulation and notable precision in the coloratura decorations. His is a truly appealing sound.

Most impressive of all was Luca Pisaroni’s Argante: unforced power and roundness of tone, combined with vocal flexibility and dexterity and an ability to perceive and convey psychological depth and complexity. While initially, his strength and heft suggested the weight of his grievance and desire for vengeance, he was also able to engage the audience’s sympathy, as in ‘Vieni, o cara, a consolarmi’, where he acquired a convincing gravity and sincerity.

This was a relaxed, nuanced interpretation by conductor Ottavio Dantone. He crafted an effortless flow between numbers, recitative naturally unfolding into aria and back again. Sensuous, at times almost dancing, then seated to direct the recitative from the keyboard, Dantone’s light, airy gestures clearly communicated profound intention and meaning to players. Details were highlighted, dynamics and articulation varied without succumbing to mannerism, and an extraordinary variety of moods was captured.

Thus, Goffredo’s ‘No, no che quest’alma’ was marked by some truly exciting string playing which significantly contributed to the drama, as the players entered into dialogue with vocal line. Elsewhere they unleashed a scurrying viciousness, as in Armida’s ‘Furie terribili’. The woodwind were no less striking. A trilling sopranino recorder charmingly evoked the tweeting birds in Almirena’s ‘Augelletti’ (so, why, oh why, did we need trite recorded birdsong, when Handel has written the idyllic twitterings into the score?). And, stunningly busy bassoon playing in Rinaldo’s ‘Venti, turbine, prestate’ characterised the winds and whirlwinds that our hero calls upon to give him strength. I fear some of the instrumental subtleties may have been lost in various places in the auditorium: the theorbo scarcely penetrated where I was seated.

So, despite the visual irritations, there was much to enjoy and admire. Composing in haste, economically filching much material from his own works, perhaps Handel did not fully engage with the implications of the text, but instead, hoping to win over London audiences to the new Italian opera seria style, presented a score containing some of his most exquisite numbers. However, as Anne Ozorio noted in her 13th July review of the Glyndebourne performance, while there is much humour in the work, “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”. The problem is that Carson’s perspective, which perhaps does seek to illuminate the naivety and irresponsibility of the Crusaders, ultimately trivialises the work; playground japes — football fun with a giant globe, sword fights with hockey sticks — just don’t sit comfortably with the epic scope of the original libretto, drawn from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata.

Claire Seymour

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