Prom 55 – Fine performances compensate an unsatisfactory Rinaldo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Rinaldo : (Semi-staged) Soloists, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ottavio Dantone (conductor) Royal Albert Hall London 25.8.2011 (MMB)

Rinaldo – Sonia Prina (contralto)
Goffredo – Varduhi Abrahamyan (mezzo-soprano)
Eustazio – Tim Mead (counter-tenor)
Almirena – Anett Fritsch (soprano)
Armida – Breanda Rae (soprano)
Argante – Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone)
A Christian Magician – William Towers (counter-tenor)
Herald – Oliver Mercer (tenor)
Woman – Rhian Lewis (soprano)
Sirens – Charlotte Beament, Rebecca van den Berg (sopranos)

Rinaldo was the young Handel’s sixth opera but the first written for the London stage, which brought him resounding success in England. Ultimately, it led to the composer’s move to this country and eventually to his obtaining British citizenship in 1727.

Rinaldo was premiered at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 24th February 1711, only one day after the composer’s 26th birthday. The title role in the original production was sung by one of the greatest castrati of the day, the famous Nicolo Francesco Grimaldi, better known as Nicolini, which possibly contributed considerably to the success of the piece, alongside its spectacular, extravagant settings designed by Aaron Hill, the then manager of the theatre. In 1731, Handel revived the opera and re-wrote the score. The part of Rinaldo fell this time to the celebrated and equally famous castrato Senesino (real name: Francesco Bernardi) but the composer made many other fundamental changes. For example, another leading role, Goffredo, was sung by a tenor while it was written for an alto in the original score. The version presented in Prom 55 appeared to be the original.

Rinaldo is not one of Handel’s operas that I truly admire and it is naturally not in the same league as the ones that he composed later, particularly, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Ariodante and Alcina, which are all true operatic masterpieces. However, the score of Rinaldo has some precious, wonderful moments (a few of which were re-written after some of his previous works) and demonstrates the young composer’s talent, clearly showing why he became the ruling force in the British opera scene. The libretto was written by Giacomo Rossi and is loosely based on the famous epic poem, La Gerusalemme Liberata, by Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Tasso’s poem is a romantic story, complete with fantastical beings (like the witch Armida) but depicting real historical facts, namely, the First Crusade where the Christian Knights battled against the Saracens to take Jerusalem. This was a topic that the public would relate to, as when Tasso wrote his poem, the Ottoman Empire expansion was a reality, particularly in Eastern Europe. Although, politically things had changed by the time Handel composed Rinaldo, the public’s taste for romantic, fantastic plots, against a background of heroic deeds, was still very much alive. Nowadays, everybody seems to think that modern audiences could not possibly appreciate anything set in a distant historical period if it is not glossed over with light, funny gags or transposed to a much more recent past or to the present time. This is exactly the case with this production of Handel’s Rinaldo by Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Among other things, Glyndebourne are famous for their often daring, modern looking, high quality productions. They have injected new life in other works, like for example, the highly acclaimed production of another of Handel’s operas Giulio Cesare directed by David McVicar. I don’t think that they have succeeded here in the same way. To me, this modern adaptation of Rinaldo did not quite work, though the majority of the audience last night at the RAH seemed to think otherwise, judging by the roaring applause at some of the comic gags.

Robert Carsen’s production relocates the action from the First Crusade to a classroom in which a bullied, daydreaming schoolboy imagines himself as Rinaldo. If one had not read this piece of information, stated in the programme notes, before the opera started, one was left slightly confused. Is the action set in a school and are they are having a history lesson? Or are they staging the opera in the school while they learn about the Crusades? Anyway, eventually, we gather what is happening. This boy who is bullied at school dreams that he is Rinaldo, the heroic Christian knight who helped free Jerusalem from Saracen dominance. From here on, anything is possible, as the boy definitely possesses a wildly active imagination! So, we are served with an Armida who is a bit of a “babe”, of the type that populates many male fantasies and brave young knights on bicycles! Surely, even present day teenagers know that the Crusaders used horses and bikes had not yet been invented? The Christian Magician has the appearance of a mad, ridiculous man who looks like he should never have been let out of whatever institution he escaped from and Armida’s army of furies are a gang of wild looking girls who probably have rather foul mouths when they speak to each other. The battle between the Christians and the Moors is depicted as a strange football game with a globe hanging from a pole, at times reminiscent of a certain boy wizard’s school games! There are also many scenes showing corporal punishment, for example when Armida is commanding her army of demons, which most of the audience seemed to think was funny – which I found worrying. The production does have some rather funny moments but, to me, there are too many antics on stage, which often seem out of place and silly. The idea of setting the story in a school is actually a rather inventive approach and it would have worked well if there was less pantomime and wittier, more intelligent comedy.

To my mind, the production is far from being Glyndebourne’s best, though the way it was staged for the Proms is clever and made good use of the RAH’s features. Bruno Ravella, who directed it specifically for the BBC Proms, had the brilliant idea of placing the action on a large elevated platform, slightly higher than the orchestra and located immediately behind it, which worked rather effectively.

While I was a little disappointed with the production, the cast and orchestra were simply superb. Italian contralto, Sonia Prina sang the title role of Rinaldo impressively. Though her voice lacks at times strength, she is excellent in the florid passages, negotiating them with ease and elegance and definitely excels in the slower, more emotional parts. Her delivery of the famous aria Cara sposa, amante cara is very poignant and truly beautiful. Dramatically, she actually made us believe that (in this production), she is a bullied teenage boy, dreaming of great things. Goffredo was effectively sung by an Armenian mezzo, Varduhi Abrahamyan, whom I had never heard before, but who impressed me with her dark though warm tone and eloquent coloratura. Brenda Rae was in fine voice and made a rather sexy, exceptionally effective Armida, complete with very high heels and tight leather dresses, which fit her supermodel looks to perfection. Her performance of the aria Ah! crudel was suitably enraged and marked by some furious, at times very funny tantrums. Luca Pisaroni’s warm, clear baritone made a wonderful and welcoming contrast to the predominantly high voices. He was in great form: his singing was accomplished and he made a distinguished, striking Argante, with his rather attractive stage presence. Young Tim Mead was very convincing as Eustazio, singing the role with great easiness and beauty of tone. I think that he is one of the best and most exciting counter-tenors to appear on the scene, after Andreas Scholl and David Daniels. Almirena was sung by young German soprano Anett Fritsch, replacing the advertised Sandrine Piau who was unable to appear. Fritsch made a very pleasing, believably innocent Almirena, singing with a fresh, crystal clear voice and her rendition of one of Handel’s most famous arias, Lascia ch’io pianga, was positively delightful.

Although the cast was excellent, the absolute best of this Prom 55 was definitely the performance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Their customary brilliance was there at every moment and they did not disappoint. Under the firm, insightful and caring baton of Ottavio Dantone, they delivered a magnificent, beautiful and radiant performance of Handel’s music, which made me forget the flaws of the production.

Finally, it remains to be said that the Royal Albert Hall is not the right stage for operas of this kind, which are not really on a grand scale. The auditorium is too large. It reduces the singers to insignificant figures on stage (particularly if one is sitting higher up) but, worst of all, their voices are at times dwarfed and may come occasionally across as if they are fading. Overall, this was an enjoyable, satisfying performance from a musical perspective, as cast and orchestra were at the top of their game but, in my opinion, the production did not do them justice.

Margarida Mota-Bull