This will be remembered as the night at Glyndebourne when the lights went out. Half way through the first act of Handel’s opera about sorcery during the Crusades everything was plunged into darkness and the performance ground to a halt. “At last – some magic”, declared one wit. There had not been much until then.
Faced with an opera in which Christians are pitted against Saracens, the typical opera director’s response might be to reach for an off-the-shelf updating to present-day Iraq. It is to Robert Carsen’s credit that he has come up with something more imaginative, but do we really want to see Handel’s very adult opera played out by an unruly pack of adolescents in a school classroom?
The plot starts out as a history lesson, which soon degenerates into pandemonium. There are love trysts behind the bicycle sheds and experiments in the chemistry lab that end in explosions. The culminating battle for Jerusalem becomes a football match free-for-all. The saving grace in all this is that Carsen has a sense of humour: it was a wicked idea to turn one of the armies into a marauding band of St Trinian’s schoolgirls and he causes merry confusion with a long line of identikit, blonde, pigtailed girls. But a production of a Handel opera that fails to connect with the emotions cannot be counted a success.
Even if the cast had been a galaxy of star Handelians, they would have been pushed to rise to the music’s emotional heights. The best of the singers is the bass Luca Pisaroni as Argante, here a Muslim housemaster, but his is a secondary role. Countertenor Tim Mead also does well as Eustazio. Otherwise, Anett Fritsch’s singing as Almirena is attractive enough, Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Goffredo is sturdy, and Brenda Rae’s leather-clad sorceress Armida has brilliant top notes that are not matched lower down.
Ottavio Dantone conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with a sure sense of style, but does not dig much below the surface. The same might also be said of the Rinaldo of Sonia Prina, who is serious and highly skilled but rarely touches the heart. Who really put the lights out during her big aria? Perhaps it was a rival mezzo who envied her immaculate coloratura.