BBC Prom 55: Rinaldo

First there was Christopher Alden’s A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
at ENO, and now Robert Carsen’s
Rinaldo, first seen at Glyndebourne earlier this season, and presented
in a semi-staged version by Bruno Ravella at the Albert Hall.

I found this production both troublesome and intriguing, at times
conceptually irritating but always musically satisfying.

The distractions began during the overture, when the grace and elegance of
the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the sensuous baton of Ottavio
Dantone was rather brutally shattered by schoolboy tussles, as a gang of
bullies sought to deprive the hapless Rinaldo of his cherished portrait of his
beloved, Almirena, that he has secretly stashed in his school-desk.

At times, such distractions became more destructive, undermining plot and
characterisation. It’s hard to be a convincing Crusading hero when
you’re encumbered by an outsize satchel, have your bottom spanked by a
sadistic schoolmarm, and, rather than a chariot and steed, your transport into
battle is a bicycle with a dodgy headlamp and a puncture. And, it’s even
worse when you don’t even get the chance to draw your sword to defend
your true love against the dastardly forces of your evil enemy, because
you’re too busy ‘making hay’ behind the bike sheds with the
innocent lass to notice you’re surrounded.

Costumes, and props, were deliberately disconcerting but proved confusing.
Uniformed schoolboys clashed with turban-clad Arabs — were we supposed to
imagine Western involvement in contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts? And, one
doesn’t usually find flashing scimitars and lacrosse sticks clashing as
weapons on the same field of war. A PVC-clad dominatrix towering in her
Louboutins; academic big-wigs in gowns and mortars; demure pinafores; gleaming
bronze breastplates: nothing quite added up. In Afghanistan, they hide suicide
bombs under their burkas; here, Armida’s female ‘press gang’
whisked off their shapeless hide-alls to reveal the hitched skirts and
up-turned colours of the St. Trinian’s elite, a veritable harem of
lacrosse-swinging ladettes.

Never mind. There were some deft directorial and visual touches: projected
images and text — declarations and prophecies — were atmospheric
and tartly informative respectively. And, the light comic ambience wryly
emphasised the mixture of fairytale, fantasy and romance which the opera
embraces. If one closed one’s eyes, great delights awaited.

Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo may have been a little underpowered to begin
with, but she exhibited genuine musical intelligence and vocal stamina in
shaping and sustaining this role. Her sweet, warm tone was matched by the
breathtaking ease with which she despatched the coloratura challenges —
surely Handel didn’t intend to look and sound that easy! The Act 1
‘Caro sposa’ was superb. Given the formal stature of the aria,
Prina had the sense to begin with understatement, the stillness of the long
unfolding lines hinting at despair without over-dramatising. The vocal line was
effectively reinforced by plaintive strings: a gentle walking bass coloured by
affective gestures in the upper strings. Using text repetition and musical
sequence to slowly build up emotional energy, Prina exquisitely and touchingly
revealed Rinaldo’s torment.

Varduhi Abrahamyan demonstrated how to deliver recitative meaningfully, as
Goffredo, and her arias were characterised by evenness of line and some
impressive breath control. As Armida, Brenda Rae seemed to relish the
raunchiness of the role a trifle too much to begin with, forgetting to focus on
the music itself; leaps were a little insecure in her opening aria and at the
top her brightness was occasionally tinged with shrillness. But, she settled
down when she realised that she could easily project into the vast hall,
growing in confidence and elegance throughout the performance.

Anett Fritsch’s soothing lower register was ideal for the placid,
tender Almirena, and she blended meltingly in her duets with Rinaldo.
Countertenor Tim Mead made a strong musical and dramatic impression as
Eustazio, with vivid vigorous articulation and notable precision in the
coloratura decorations. His is a truly appealing sound.

Most impressive of all was Luca Pisaroni’s Argante: unforced power and
roundness of tone, combined with vocal flexibility and dexterity and an ability
to perceive and convey psychological depth and complexity. While initially, his
strength and heft suggested the weight of his grievance and desire for
vengeance, he was also able to engage the audience’s sympathy, as in
‘Vieni, o cara, a consolarmi’, where he acquired a convincing
gravity and sincerity.

This was a relaxed, nuanced interpretation by conductor Ottavio Dantone. He
crafted an effortless flow between numbers, recitative naturally unfolding into
aria and back again. Sensuous, at times almost dancing, then seated to direct
the recitative from the keyboard, Dantone’s light, airy gestures clearly
communicated profound intention and meaning to players. Details were
highlighted, dynamics and articulation varied without succumbing to mannerism,
and an extraordinary variety of moods was captured.

Thus, Goffredo’s ‘No, no che quest’alma’ was marked
by some truly exciting string playing which significantly contributed to the
drama, as the players entered into dialogue with vocal line. Elsewhere they
unleashed a scurrying viciousness, as in Armida’s ‘Furie
terribili’. The woodwind were no less striking. A trilling sopranino
recorder charmingly evoked the tweeting birds in Almirena’s
‘Augelletti’ (so, why, oh why, did we need trite recorded birdsong,
when Handel has written the idyllic twitterings into the score?). And,
stunningly busy bassoon playing in Rinaldo’s ‘Venti, turbine,
prestate’ characterised the winds and whirlwinds that our hero calls upon
to give him strength. I fear some of the instrumental subtleties may have been
lost in various places in the auditorium: the theorbo scarcely penetrated where
I was seated.

So, despite the visual irritations, there was much to enjoy and admire.
Composing in haste, economically filching much material from his own works,
perhaps Handel did not fully engage with the implications of the text, but
instead, hoping to win over London audiences to the new Italian opera
style, presented a score containing some of his most exquisite
numbers. However, as Anne Ozorio noted in her 13th July
review of the Glyndebourne performance
, while there is much humour in the
work, “its deeper levels would not have been lost on baroque audiences.
Handel, through Torquato Tasso, is also obliquely mocking the futility of war
and power games”. The problem is that Carson’s perspective, which
perhaps does seek to illuminate the naivety and irresponsibility of the
Crusaders, ultimately trivialises the work; playground japes — football
fun with a giant globe, sword fights with hockey sticks — just
don’t sit comfortably with the epic scope of the original libretto, drawn
from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata.

Claire Seymour

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listen to this production

image_description=Brenda Rae as Armida [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]
product_title=G. F. Handel: Rinaldo
product_by=Rinaldo: Sonia Prina; Goffredo: Varduhi Abrahamyan; Eustazio: Tim Mead; Almirena: Anett Fritsch; Armida: Brenda Rae; Argante: Luca Pisaroni; Christian Magician: William Towers; Herald: Oliver Mercer; Woman: Rhian Lewis. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Ottavio Dantone. Stage Director: Bruno Ravella. Director: Robert Carsen. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday 25th August 2011.
product_id=Above: Brenda Rae as Armida [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.