After reading the reviews of Robert Carson's new production, I had slight misgivings. Handel's opera, originally set during the First Crusade, was to be set in a school room. Having recently endured Christopher Alden's idiotic but apparently similarly located Midsummer Night's Dream, I think there was something in the mere idea of another such school setting that set my teeth on edge. Now it is true that some of the silliness during the overture is, or at least was for me, unnecessary. But if you give way to the overall scheme of the production you will enjoy a rather enchanting evening.
Yes, Carson does start from the premise that Rinaldo is actually a schoolboy dreaming of escape from a dreary exam question on the First Crusaders, and yes we do have to have a caning scene at the very beginning, but once you're into the fantasy it becomes increasingly beautifully realised. Replacing horses with bicycles, culminating in a lovely ET hommage curtain to act one is inspired. A real boat appears peopled with heroine lookalikes to lure Rinaldo away to the witch's isle, and the explosions, multiple screens and higgledy-piggledy mad lab through which the hapless knights attempt to reach said isle is brilliantly done. By the time we reached the St Trinian's like happy madness of the final act I was enchanted and laughing with delight at Carson's cleverly conceived final confrontation, which also I suggest actually contains a rather poignant admonition about the stupidity of wars of religion. If this isn't magnificence quite on the order of the McVicar Giulio Cesare that is really because this is a lesser Handel piece (and the singers aren't quite of the top notch order fielded in that production) not because Carson's production is any less inventive and joyous. I can also imagine that some critics (and I had a slight suspicion some audience members) may feel that this is all too silly. I did feel that a little in Act One, but as the show goes on it becomes apparent that actually the plotting and text is fairly ludicrous in many places. And yet this is the kind of trial piece that he needed to write as part of the process of developing towards late masterpieces like Ariodante – indeed I was astonished to discover this morning just how early a work Rinaldo is. To do it completely straight would be very very difficult to pull off and I'm not at all convinced any more rewarding. Carson's production acknowledges the follies and makes a beguiling, human evening out of them.
I said above that the singers are not quite of the order of those in Giulio Cesare, and one member of my party felt that they were generally good but not outstanding. I dissent slightly from this: several of the performers sing beautifully and act very convincingly (indeed as in the McVicar's Meistersinger the quality of the acting here knocks most performances at the Coliseum this season off the stage). Anett Fritsch as Almirena nails the best known aria in the opera (Lascia ch'io pianga); Brenda Rae (Armida) and Luca Pisaroni (Argante) complement each other nicely, and their reconciliation duet in Act Three was beautifully sung, Pisaroni's bass providing a superb anchor, while Rae delivered soaring yet pointed sustained notes above. Also worthy of mention is Tim Mead's well characterised Eustazio. It's a rather thankless role, but Mead throws himself into it whole-heartedly and his performance of the opening aria of Act Two is a sign that things are moving up a gear – more please. The astute among you will have noticed that I have not yet mentioned Sonia Prina's Rinaldo. There is a very simple reason for this: regrettably (given that she is the lead) she isn't up to it. The passagework and ornamentation sounded forced, she doesn't have the vocal dynamic range to bring enough contrast between A and B sections of arias, and her relations with the pit were problematic.
In the pit itself the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play beautifully. Ottavio Dantone has not quite yet got absolute command (of which the problems during Prina's numbers are the most obvious evidence). However, he does have a sense of drama and movement, in some ways the most critical things to successful opera performance, and I would be interested to hear him again.
Overall, this is a merry, rather beguiling evening. A few returns have been appearing on the Glyndebourne website for the remaining performances and it is well worth picking one up if you can afford it. Otherwise the production is touring with Glyndebourne on Tour in the autumn. Mark this up as one to catch.