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10 Aug 2014

Four countertenors : Handel Rinaldo Glyndebourne

Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.

Handel : Rinaldo, Glyndebourne Festival, Lewes, West Sussex England, 9th August 2014

A review by Robert Hugill


For their first revival of the production, Glyndebourne brought back conductor Olivier Dantone, and assembled a cast which showcased the modern counter-tenor revival by including a total of four in the cast. . Unusually for a modern performance of a Handel opera, all the male characters were played by men. Iestyn Davies was Rinaldo, with Tim Mead as Goffredo, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Eustazio and James Laing as the Christian Magus. Christina Landshamer was Almirena, Karina Gauvan was Armida and Joshua Hopkins was Argante. The designer was Gideon Davey, lighting was by Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet, movement director was Philippe Giraudeau and the revival director was Bruno Ravella. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was in the pit.

The basic premises of the staging were set out during the wonderfully crisp and involving account of the overture. A young schoolboy, Rinaldo (Iestyn Davies) was being bullied by his fellows and tormented by a pair of teachers. Suddenly a group of knights appear (dressed in a combination of school uniforms and breast-plates). For the rest of the opera, the setting is the school; Armida's domain is the dormitory, the Christian Magus is the chemistry master. But the action is pure schoolboy fantasy. The Knights are led by the sympathetic teacher, Goffredo (Tim Mead), whilst the two bad teachers, Armida (Karina Gauvin) and Argante (Joshua Hopkins) have a cohort of furies who seemed to be girls from St. Trinian's on LSD. Rinaldo's love interest was a fellow school girl, Almirena (Christina Landshamer).

Any production of Rinaldo needs to be entertaining and spectacular. The plot is full of holes and the way that Handel brought in arias from previous works means that we have some superb music often in unsuitable places. Carsen and Davey brought in spectacle, albeit in unusual ways. The blackboards in the school sported magic writing, and repeatedly seem to form portals to the magic world. Armida made her first entrance through one, and as did the the vision of the sirens.

But sometimes the desire for spectacle and humour got in the way of the opera; the finale of act one, Rinaldo's "Venti turbini" was accompanied by the Knights preparing their steeds, bicycles, to great comic effect. Davies sang the final section riding a bicycle mid-air. A great visual effect, and very funny, but somehow at odds with Handel's music. The long action sequence in act three clearly caused problems, Handel wrote some terrific music here but what we saw was visually uninteresting, though sometimes very funny, and the culminating battle was a bizarrely funny football game. Carsen's stagecraft was not in doubt and but the production seemed to highlight the deficiencies of the drama rather than help them.

The only really fully rounded character in Handel's opera is the evil sorceress Armida. Here Karina Gauvin was in great form and went well on the way to stealing the show. Re-invented by Carsen as an evil, leather clad dominatrix, Gauvin's Armida used all the voluptuousness of her leather-clad fuller figure, but combined this with some spectacular singing. From the moment of her first entrance, "Furie terribili", Gauvin's singing had passion and energy, combined with a strong technique. All the details in the arias were there; not only the profound beauty and poignancy of "Ah Crudel" when Davies's Rinaldo rejects her in act two, but the vivid rage aria "Vo' fa guerra". With some singers, there could have been a danger that the highly coloured theatrical concept of the character might overshadow the musical elements, but not with Gauvin. What we got was a wonderfully integrated, and brilliantly sung performance. This Armida was someone you loved to hate and thrilled to listen to.

The other large role is the title role, Rinaldo with eight arias and a duet with each of the sopranos. Davies's performance was a dramatic and musical tour de force, completely matching Gauvin and ensuring that the drama was balanced. Davies showed himself entirely adept at coping the demands of the rather uneven libretto. When Armida kidnaps Almirena, Davies has a pair of arias almost back to back both essentially covering the same emotional ground (the entirely wonderful "Cara sposa" and the different but still lovely "Cor ingrato". But you never felt that Davies was doing so, he brought a wonderful variety of tone and emotions to them. The virtuoso act one finale was brilliantly done even though Davies spent part of the aria on a flying bike. Rinaldo's later arias are equally spectacular, and Davies acquitted himself brilliantly, being wonderfully martial in "Or la tromba". Almost as importantly, he brought light and shade to the character. In this version of the story Rinaldo is unbelievably moral, he is never tempted by Armida and this is the story's weakness (Carsen's re-invention with Armida as the evil teacher works well here). The beauty of Davies's Rinaldo was that we never really noticed this weakness, he created a complete character.

Joshua Hopkins was a wonderfully vivid Argante, stitching the character's arias (taken from a variety of sources) into something like a coherent character. His opening aria was finely and arrestingly done, much cloak twirling accompanied the equally vivid account of the vocal line. Argante might not be the most well drawn of villains, but Hopkins made him almost believable and a good foil for Gauvin.

It was not Christina Landshamer's fault that Handel's original Almirena was clearly a singer of minor talents, so that the heroine of the opera gets so few arias. But the fact that Carsen and Davey dressed her in such an unflattering costume (a girl's pinafore dress which becomes voluminous and sweeps to the floor, looking four sizes too big), and had a preference for staging her arias with the singer a long way up stage, meant that for the first two acts Almirena hardly registered as a character. That said, Lanshamer was musically superb in her showpieces; the act one "Augelletti" was full of brilliant trills and sung with just the right amount of charm, whilst Act Two's "Lascia io pianga" was superb and brought a tear to the eye. Only in the last act did this build into something like a sense of character.Landshamer made you realise that in another opera, she could be a very powerful Handel heroine. Her duet with Davies in act one had great delight and charm, and here we could appreciate the naivety of two teenagers in love.

Tim Mead made a fine upstanding Goffredo, singing his arias with poise and polish. He has the voice, bearing and physique for such a fine upstanding role, unfortunately Handel and his librettist never really allow the character to come off the page, and Carsen's staging did not help here. Mead did his best and was noble and upstanding in just the right way, and sang with great beauty of tone and an admirable firmness.

It says a lot of Anthony Roth Costanzo's personal abilities that he managed to charm as Eustazio, a role which is entirely superfluous. You could probably cut Eustazio's arias and not lose an inch of dramatic coherence. Costanzo has a bright, quite narrow focussed timbre but he used it well and captured our attention in his arias. James Laing was the Christian Magus, and had great fun with his jaunty aria.

The smaller roles were all taken by members of the Glyndebourne Chorus, Niel Joubert was the firm toned Herald. Anna Rajah and Rachel Taylor were the delightful Sirens in one of the loveliest numbers in the opera when the Sirens tempt Rinaldo, whilst Charlotte Beament was a Woman.

Handel was showing off in the orchestra too, determined to make a great effect on the Londoners in 1711. Under Olivier Dantone, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment made a big effect . There were some fabulous individual solos but alo a wonderfully vivid and crisply dramatic overall effect. Dantone kept things moving, This was a moderately brisk performance and his singers and instrumentalists could clearly cope with the brilliant tempi; But the more emotional moments relaxed too.

One rather annoying logistical note; quite wisely there were two intervals, but the first interval was short and the second interval was the long dinner interval. This meant that the long interval came late in the evening, just before the short final act; surely not the best place for it.

However grumpy I felt about some of Carsen's comic effects, it was clear that not only the level of stagecraft was very high, but that Carsen's staging hit home with the majority of the audience. Like Handel's original audience, many people around me at Glyndebourne were clearly there to enjoy the total effect rather than to worry about the niceties of Handelian opera seria. So there was only one thing to do, relax and enjoy the show; which I did.

Robert Hugill

Handel Rinaldo
Goffredo: Tim Mead, Rinaldo: Iestyn Davies, Almirena: Christina Landshamer, Eustazio: Anthony Roth Costanzo, Herald: Niel Jouber, Argante: Joshua Hopkins, Armida: Karina Gauvin, Woman: Charlotte Beament, Sirens: Anna Rajah and Rachel Taylor, Christian Magus: James Laing Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenmment, Conductor:Ottavio Dantone, Director: Robert Carsen; Designer: Gideon Davey, Lighting: Robert Carsen & Peter Van Praet; Movement: Philippe Giraudeau; Revival director Bruno Ravella, Glyndebourne Festival Opera
9 August 2014

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