RinaldoGeorge Friedrich Handel - Rinaldo

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Ottavio Dantone, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Carsen, Sonia Prina, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Tim Mead, Anett Fritsch, Brenda Rae, Luca Pisaroni, William Towers | Opus Arte

It’s always good to have a fresh outlook placed on the subjects of Handel’s Baroque operas - or at least I think so anyway. Whether it’s traditional (although I’ve never seen a Handel opera done “authentically” period), whether it’s in a modern setting, or according to a more abstract conception, it helps if there is a strong vision that is able to reconsider what the essential themes of the work are and how they can be best presented to a modern audience. In the case of Rinaldo, a staging of the work in its libretto specified setting during the first Crusade is sufficiently remote from modern beliefs, attitudes and experience as to be possibly a distraction from the real themes that underpin the work. The purpose of any production, modern dress or otherwise, must surely be to reflect on what the work is actually about, not recreate a historical performance, and if it can break through the rigid formalism of opera seria and actually make it entertaining at the same time, well then so much the better.

Which brings us to Robert Carsen’s very distinctive but carefully considered Glyndebourne 2011 production of Handel’s first London opera from 1711. Recognising that it’s not the most consistent work, the majority of it cobbled together like a remix of Handel’s earlier greatest hits, it certainly does no harm to try and make it look as fresh and meaningful as Handel somehow manages to make it all sound. Carsen makes his intentions clear from the outset, asking the question “Were the Crusades political or inspired by an act of personal vengeance?” This message is written in chalk across a blackboard and it’s an English boys’ boarding school that acts as the backdrop or framing device to delve into the personal sentiments expressed so beautifully if somewhat generically in what is after all a patched together piece. In response to this history lesson question, a young boy, bullied and teased by his classmates, his life made a misery by his authoritarian teachers, imagines himself the great warrior Rinaldo and sees the mighty forces of Goffredo coming out from behind the blackboard to slay his tormentors.

Setting a Crusades war within the confines of a boarding school, the action taking place in classrooms, bike-sheds, dorms and locker rooms, with a gym turned into a torture chamber (there’s a difference?) and an epic battle taking place on a football pitch, the production could however just as easily be seen as placing itself at a distance from the actual events described and sung about in the libretto, but Carsen manages nonetheless to faithfully retain the entire sense of the original work within this setting. At the centre of the events relating to the siege of Jerusalem, Rinaldo’s promised love, Almirena - daughter of Goffredo - is abducted by Argante, the General of the Saracen army during a three-day truce, recognising that Rinaldo is the key to the outcome of the battle. Almirena is placed under the enchantment of the sorceress and Saracen Queen, Armida - but it’s the enchantress and her General fall prey to their own sentimental weaknesses in relation to this heroic couple. In the mind of a schoolboy, this story is wrapped up in teasing by his classmates over his girlfriend, and the dark figures of authority that keep them apart are those of the school teachers. Mix in some Furies that have a bit of a St Trinian’s thing going on and sadistic teachers in rubber bondage outfits and it certainly adds another dimension to the passions and characterisation of these mythological figures.

Through this blending of fiction, reality and fantasy, the Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo captures the essential sense of the power of mythology and identification with the sense of empowerment that lies within it - something that is much more relevant (although the case could be argued otherwise) than the sense of nationalistic pride and moral righteousness that comes with battling the dark sorcery of dangerous foreign infidels. Robert Carsen’s production, I would argue, however doesn’t entirely discount these themes either but brings them out in other ways. There are lots of clever little details in the props, uniforms and locations of a English public boarding school that reveal the same institutionalised nationalistic and militaristic attitudes. Quite correctly however, these are secondary to the love story whose purity is reflected perfectly in the innocence of first-love in the playground and by the bike-sheds. It also manages to find an imaginative way around those tricky stage directions calling for armies on horseback launching into epic battles.

Many of these directorial choices provoke laughs from the audience at Glyndebourne, which you might not consider appropriate for an opera seria work, but it shows that there is genuine engagement with the work. Whether it also inspires the performers I couldn’t say, but musically and in terms of the singing, this is a magnificent production, so at least it clearly isn’t a distraction. All the main roles are sung terrifically well. Tim Mead is one of the best Handel countertenors, but I’ve never heard him singing so well as Eustazio, his voice as angelically pure as a schoolboy soprano, so perhaps the production does indeed help in that respect. The purity and idealism of young love and innocent idealism also works in favour of contralto Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo and Anett Fritsch’s Almirena - both combining expressiveness with a gorgeous clarity and tone; and if being a sadistic headmaster and a kinky dominatrix school teacher gives force to the commanding performances of Luca Pisaroni and Brenda Rae as Argante and Armida - both of them demonstrating masterful coloratura - then I’ve no problem with that either. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Goffredo sounds strong enough at the start, but she isn’t able to sustain this through to the final act.

The whole thing however is held together and driven along musically by the outstanding performance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ottavio Dantone and anchored by his scintillating harpsichord playing, and it’s given additional emphasis in the clarity of the audio tracks on this DVD/BD release. It’s particularly impressive in the High Definition Blu-ray presentation. I don’t think I praise the actual quality of the sound reproduction on Blu-ray releases quite enough, but when you hear the tone of the Baroque period instruments in orchestral playing like this and exceptionally good singing, it just sounds incredible. This is a very fine recording. Image quality too is near flawless, the production covered well in the editing with no distractions. The Opus Arte release also contains a few excellent short features on the production and the musical interpretation in the extra features interviews (it’s good to hear the musicians views for a change), and there’s a booklet with an essay on the work and a full synopsis. The BD is all-region, 1080i Full-HD, with PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. Subtitles are in English, French and German only.