Heroic glory, sirens and sorcery: are these the hackneyed preoccupations of 18th-century opera? Or the escapist fantasies of a hormonal boy? Robert Carsen suggests the latter. In his revived 2011 staging of Rinaldo, Handel’s opera is played out at one remove. Torquato Tasso’s story of love, magic and Christian victory during the first Crusade becomes the daydream of a bullied schoolboy plotting revenge.
Now in the hands of revival director Bruno Ravella, this Glyndebourne production refuses to take things too seriously. And, to an extent, you can see why. Intended as a spectacle when it was penned by its 26-year-old composer, the 1711 work has never ranked among Handel’s most profound statements. Here, however, it clearly comes across as one of his least.
Characters are reduced to send-ups and the gags come thick and fast. The result is a farce in which Rinaldo channels Harry Potter; in which the sorceress Armida is a teacher-turned-dominatrix; in which boys in school uniforms don cuirasses and clamber over upturned school desks. It’s an imaginative concept and there are several charming touches, in particular the final battle scene which is reinvented as a football match.
The problem is that some of the opera’s weightier themes end up trivialised in the process – can you really liken the historic battle between Christians and Muslims to a scuffle in a school playground? Meanwhile moments of poignancy, not least the abduction of Rinaldo’s beloved Almirena, become fodder for comedy. This Rinaldo frequently entertains, but it rarely moves.
And when it does it is thanks to the singers, in particular countertenor Iestyn Davies, whose Rinaldo marries depth of feeling with dazzling technique. He is complemented by Christina Landshamer’s sweetly sung, angelic Almirena, even if her voice is a touch too small for the part. Karina Gauvin oozes charisma and swagger as the cane-wielding Armida. Tim Mead makes an authoritative General Goffredo; Joshua Hopkins’ Argante makes up in acting ability what he occasionally lacks in vocal detail and Anthony Roth Costanzo contributes a sprightly Eustazio. With the advocacy of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ottavio Dantone, the vitality of the music is in sure hands.