Sunday
Feb102013

Rinaldo

Handel Rinaldo opera to a libretto by Giacomo Rossi. Directed 2011 by Robert Carsen at Glyndebourne. Stars Sonia Prina (Rinaldo), Anett Fritsch (Almirena), Luca Pisaroni (Argante), Brenda Rae (Armida), Varduhi Abrahamyan (Goffredo), Tim Mead (Eustazio), William Towers (Christian Magus), Oliver Mercer (Herald), Rhian Lewis (Woman), plus Charlotte Beament and Rebecca van den Berg (Sirens). Ottavio Dantone conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Leader Matthew Truscott).  Harpsichord continuo Bernard Robertson; cello continuo Jonathan Manson; double bass continuo Chi-chi Nwanoku; theorbo continuo Elizabeth Kenny). Design by Gideon Davey; lighting by Robert Carson and Peter van Praet; movement direction by Philippe Giraudeau; dramaturgy by Ian Burton. TV direction by François Roussillon; sound supervision by Jean Chatauret; Blu-ray  production by James Whitbourn; executive producers were George Bruell and Toni Hajal. Informative extras:  Director's Notes and Conductor's Notes. Skimpy keepcase booklet has tiny type forts and does not have a list of music numbers keyed to tracts on the disc. Sung in Italian. Has subtitles in English, French, and German, but not in Italian, which is sad for those of us who are trying to learn opera Italian. Released in 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

Rinaldo first hit the stage in 1711 when Handel was 26. It was performed maybe 50 times up to about 1730. After that it remained unperformed for 200 years! It was revived in 1931 and has been admired by early opera fans ever since. Rinaldo is available on several CDs and a couple of DVDs. Subject title is the only HDVD of Rinaldo.

This opera is three times closer to Shakespeare than it is to us. The story, based on the Christian victory in the First Crusade (1100), is as relevant now as, say, the Black Plague, and the story is considered politically incorrect by many. Then there is the problem of all the high voices. Of the 11 singers credited for this disc, one substantial part (Argante) is sung by a bass and a tenor sings a herald role for maybe 30 seconds. All the rest of the singers are women or countertenors, and there is a lot of cross-dressing. (Carson lampoons the cross-dressing by introducing it just for fun in the initial scene, where all the school boys are girls, and in a battle skirmish where Rinaldo's troop of grown men troop dress as girls.)

With all these problems, why bother with Rinaldo? Well, modern composers have given up on writing music with beautiful melodies and traditional harmony. So if we want new, pretty music, why not mine the past?  To do a really effective job of mining a baroque opera, we might have to make expensive changes in rewriting the libretto and transposing soprano music to new roles for tenors and baritones. (For an example, see the much under-appreciated Orphée et Eurydice where the castrato role was given to tenor Robert Alagna.) If we don't have the budget to go that far, the director can stick with the original version and update or give it a contemporary overlay.

Carson comes up with a clever overlay. He is not presenting us a story about warfare between cultures that no longer exist. Instead, he's interested in a horror that we all have some familiarity with: surviving the 8th grade. And the entire opera takes place while our 8th-graders are taking a history exam by writing an essay on the following question: "Was the First Crusade inspired by religious idealism or political revenge?"


If there were any hot-heads out there who might take umbrage at the Rinaldo story, wouldn't this exam question defuse or at least confuse them? We don't want any car-bomb attacks at the Glyndebourne interval (intermission).

Here are some more screen shots. Rinaldo is about 14, and his girl friend is Almirena.

The other boys (girls actually) bully Rinaldo mercilessly:

And the bullies get Rinaldo blamed to boot. Rinaldo is cained by Professor Argante and the new lady teacher, Miss Armida. (There is a lot of caining in this show, and some folks have complained. But my impression is that caining is an integral part of grade-school life in England and that all adults have several caining stories which they use to intimidate their children.)

The exam is underway. As soon as Rinaldo starts to write, an army of knights under his command bursts through the blackboard to rout the bullies:

The general of the army, Goffredo, decorates Rinaldo. Almirena is Goffredo's daughter. Goffredo promises Almirena to Rinaldo when the army has complete victory (in taking the school back from the forces of evil):

Now we meet Argante, commander of the enemy. (Looks familiar, doesn't he.):

We also meet Armida, co-commander of the enemy. She controls the Furies from Hell, who attend the girl's school next door. These girls are apparently recognisable as St. Trinians students. St. Trinians obviously has a Gothic campus, which explains why the students there are Goth Girls:

Rinaldo and Almirena meet in the school yard for a love duet involving beautiful birdsong, which is provided by the OAE expert on ancient piccolo recorders. But as soon as our sweethearts exchange their chaste vows, the Goth Girls strike and abduct Almirena!

Rinaldo starts on an epic journey to rescue Almirena. If this image is confusing you, you're right: you saw this before in a movie about an extra-terrestrial being:

Now we have a quote from Homer, and we finally find out what sirens look like. Rinaldo is still learning the ways of the world. He gets seduced, hops on the boat, and is taken captive the same as Almirena:

Now for the ultimate teen-age horror-fantasy: teachers hitting on students! But our hero and heroine withstand all temptations. Almirena sings her now famous aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" ("Let me weep."):

Sonia Prina does a great job acting like a 14-year old boy who is trying to act like a man:

Skirmishes lead to the release of Almirena and Rinaldo. Here's a shot from the Battle for the Chemistry Lab:

Rinaldo is back and, to the tune of some of Handel's greatest trumpet music, purifies himself for the final battle.

The final battle suddenly turns into a soccer match:

Rinaldo wins the match with a single goal scored in the last split-second:

General Goffredo and Rinaldo pardon the losers and all reconcile:

Bolstered by his victories, but with malice toward none, Rinaldo contemplates the 9th grade:

I hope you can see by now that this is a funny and light-hearted treatment of Rinaldo that is not silly and has no arbitrary injections of inexplicable Eurotrash. All the singing and acting is good, even if all the high-register voices threaten to become irritating. The OAE plays very well, and the sound recording is fine. The small orchestra gives all the support the singers need. At the same time, you can always hear the signers well. For example, I often have trouble hearing countertenor Tim Mead on other recordings. But here I understand his singing well and actually enjoy his preppy, enthusiastic personality. François Roussillon produces, as always, excellent picture quality and video content with a nice variety of long-range to close-up shots.

I'm comfortable with a "B+" grade for this Rinaldo. This is not a heavy-weight opera, nor does the overlay of teen angst, however clever, strike me as important. And then the decision of Opus Arte to cheapen the product with a light-weight keepcase booklet and no Italian subtitles also dampens my enthusiasm a bit. But if you seek a fun introduction to baroque opera, give Carson's vision a try.

There are a lot of YouTube clips for this, but all in SD.

 

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