Friday 26 August 2011

Review of Handel's Rinaldo at the Proms

I had been hoping that most of Robert Carsen's production would get mislayed when Glyndebourne travelled up the M23 to bring Handel's Rinaldo to the Proms. In the event, Bruno Ravella's staging seemed an effective distillation of Carsen's original; it certainly wasn't a semi-staging, all the action took place on a substantial platform behind and above the orchestra.

Carsen's basic premise was the the entire opera was the dream of an idle school-boy, with the his school friends as the Crusaders, the teachers turned into the Saracen King, Argante, the evil Sorceress, Armida, and the friendly Christian Magician. Armida was supported by a group of female furies who were obviously from the local equivalent of St. Trinians.

Seeing diminutive Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina dressed so convincingly as a school-boy you began to wonder what came first, the concept or the casting of the singer. As a concept, Rinaldo's school-days wasn't all bad, it certainly helped solve a number of problems and provided the audience with a hook into the action, which the traditional crusaders and saracens might not have done. In terms of dramaturgy my only serious complaint was the way the the final battle was turned into a joke football match.

But this was indicative of a general attitude because Carsen just doesn't seem to have taken the opera at all seriously and at every turn has added details which essentially made the piece a comedy. Which it certainly isn't. Rinaldo isn't the most sophisticated of Handel's operas; its a romping good yarn designed to dazzle and entertain. He put into it many of his finest arias from his Italian period and created a piece which is one of the most approachable. Whilst it doesn't dig as deep as his later masterpieces, he does give the characters some superbly dramatic music and they demand to be taken seriously, on their own terms.

But instead of using the setting to seriously re-think the opera, Carsen has been content to entertain, throwing in everything (including references to E.T.). Even in this reduced version it was one of the most hyper-active Handel productions I've seen in a long time. The problem wasn't the school-days setting, but the fact that there was always something going on. Virtually all the arias took place against a backdrop of busy activity, as if Carsen constantly felt pressed to keep the punters entertained. What could be achieved was shown by Prina's superb rendition of Cara Sposa where for virtually the first time she was alone on stage for the entire aria.

It was Prina's energy and vital performance which carried the show. The role of Rinaldo has a significant number of arias and when Prina was singing, her vividness and involvement in the characterisation were little short of brilliant. Granted, we had the disadvantage of the Albert Hall so that even from the stalls the entire opera sounded distant; but the ear learns to cope and Prina's personality shone forth.

As her love interest, Almirena, Anett Fritsch had rather less to work with and though she sang beautifully, she did not engage quite as much. Almirena does, however, get the opera's best known aria, Lascia ch'io pianga and this Fritsch sang superbly.

Brenda Rae presented Armida as an evil, pvc clad dominatrix. Visually this was a triumph, but the concept completely overshadowed the musical values and Rae's Armida never really created a dominatrix in the music. Rae has an attractive soprano voice, and sang the notes quite charmingly; in fact she would have made a fine Almirena. But she didn't create the sort of musical personality needed. Just listen to Cecilia Bartoli on the Hogwood recording to hear what can be done with this role. Handel did well at conflicted evil sorceresses and Armida is the first in that line, somehow Rae never brought this over.

Thankfully, Luca Pisaroni as Argante got rather closer and it was sheer pleasure to listen to the way he brought his lovely bass-baritone voice round Handel's fioriture and then used them to create drama.

The other roles were all nicely taken. Varhudi Abrahamyan made a fine Goffredo and Tim Mead impressed in Eustazio's arias. William Towers popped up as a demented Chemistry Master (the Christian Magician), his voice almost competing with the fright wig he had to wear.

Under Ottavio Dantone, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought character and richness to Handel's extravagant orchestration.

Musically this was a fine evening and it was a complete joy, providing you kept your eyes closed.

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