Ottavio Dantone, cond; Sonia Prina (
); Anett Fritsch (
); Luca Pisaroni (
); Brenda Rae (
); Varduhi Abrahamyan (
); Tim Mead (
); William Towers (
); O of the Age of Enlightenment
OPUS ARTE OA 1081 D (1 DVD: 190:00 opera, 24:00 bonus; Blu-ray OA BD7107 D) Live: Glyndebourne 2011
When we think of the Crusades, our romantic imaginations go to mounted knights in armor with white crosses on their breastplates on mighty chargers doing battle with mounted and turbaned Saracens on sleek Arabian steeds with flowing robes and scimitars flashing in the sun. In point of fact, most of the battles during the First Crusade were sieges, with one side hunkered down inside a fortress or walled city, which was certainly the case during the battle for Jerusalem, as depicted in George Frideric Handel’s
. Handel’s librettist, Giacomo Rossi, ignores all of that, his stage instructions call for the Saracens to file out of the town like chickens to be plucked and form up across from the waiting Crusaders (who would have combatants on foot and a contingent of archers as well as the mounted knights). Then the two sides are to engage in actual battle with first one side surging to the fore and then the other. The difficulty of staging such a military spectacle, along with some of the magic effects of sorceress Armida, are often cited as reasons to either change the story or not give the opera at all.
In this Glyndebourne production from 2011 the epic battle takes place on a soccer pitch at a British boys’ school between boys in school uniforms and breastplates and some rather sluttily dressed schoolgirls. Many of the magic effects occur in the school chemistry lab, with the fizzes and bangs and colorful explosions of a lab assignment gone very bad. Other scenes take place in a classroom, a hallway with school lockers and the bicycle barn. Armida’s torture chamber is the school gymnasium. The whole story of
here becomes a young bullied schoolboy’s romantic fantasy of gaining revenge on the school bullies and the mean teachers who punish him. Of course the schoolboy is Rinaldo, mighty Christian warrior, his young girlfriend Almirena, Rinaldo’s intended, and his classmates the knights of the Crusader army, with Goffredo, their leader and his brother Eustazio two of the principals. The mean teachers become the Saracen leader Argante and his girlfriend, the sorceress Armida who wears a kinky rubber outfit. The sluttily dressed schoolgirls double as Armida’s Furies. The story is played in earnest, not tongue-in-cheek and manages to hang together and be quite entertaining. There are a few whimsical bits that draw audience laughter; at the end of act I Rinaldo goes airborne and flies across the face of the full moon on his bicycle. (I think I was on that ride in Orlando once.) I am informed the slutty schoolgirls are actually modeled on the students of St. Trinian’s in popular movies from the ’60s I must have missed. Thankfully, Stage Director Robert Carsen gives us no trace of Harry Potter.
As might be expected from Glyndebourne, the musical side of things is first-rate. The classy period ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, is led here impeccably by the up and coming young Italian maestro Ottavio Dantone. All of the singers are very good, starting with contralto Sonia Prina as Rinaldo. Prina is a bit small and short to look like a heroic warrior but she fits a British schoolboy much better and sings the music very well. Handel wrote three roles for castrato, Rinaldo, Goffredo, and his brother Eustazio. Here, Goffredo is sung by mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan and Eustazio by countertenor Tim Mead, both in fine voice, though Goffredo must sing a lot of music and Abrahamyan seems to tire a bit in the last act. The enemy forces provide some of the best music in
and here coloratura soprano Brenda Rae as Armida scores a triumph in some of Handel’s most difficult and spectacular music. Rae is able to portray both the alluring seductress of Rinaldo and the angry twice-rejected sorceress with equal skill and believability. Luca Pisaroni brings his fine bass-baritone voice to bear on the role of the Saracen leader, Argante, and produces some highlights of his own. Soprano Anett Fritsch gives us a very well sung “Lascia ch’io pianga” as Almirena, but I can never get Cecilia Bartoli’s version on Decca out of my head. Five arias are cut from the 1711 score to allow the Glyndebourne patrons time to catch the last train back to London.
There is another production of
on DVD, from Munich, with Harry Bicket conducting the Bavarian State forces and featuring countertenor David Daniels in the title role, with two other countertenors, David Walker and Axel Kohler in Handel’s two other castrato roles. The Munich version is played more as Euro farce with many directorial oddities prevailing. The setting is modernized to the present with much of the first act taking place in a seedy hotel lobby with cheap orange furniture. Goffredo is apparently a sleazy evangelist preacher trying to enlist heroic Rinaldo to do God’s work, his brother Eustazio the PR man and business manager who counts the take from the collection plates. During one aria a giant bobble-head doll wanders out, drops his pants, then turns around and moons the audience, which sets the prevailing tone of this production. It certainly distracts our attention from the implied inanity of the original story. This set is also very well sung.
The theory that the story of
cannot be successfully produced in its original guise to the satisfaction of modern viewers has been lately disproved by the Metropolitan Opera’s tasteful and very enjoyable staging of the Rossini version of the same story (
). Neither the Glyndebourne nor the Munich sets are completely satisfactory in that regard, some of the grand glory and romance of Handel’s heroic melodrama leaks out like a flat tire when the work is updated and farcical elements inserted. You are left with several good tunes and in this Opus Arte set, a rather cute story. I like this one the better of the two, and it comes in razor sharp Blu-ray video and hi-def surround sound. Recommended.