Mead, Tim

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.

AdmetoGeorge Frideric Handel - Admeto

Festspiel Orchester of Göttingen, 2006 | Doris Dörrie, Nicholas McGegan, Agnes Meth, Tim Mead, Marie Arnet, Kirsten Blaise, Andrew Radley | Unitel Classica - C-Major

The main talking point about this production of Handel’s Admeto, re di Tessaglia for the Festspiel Orchester Göttingen in 2009 is clearly Doris Dörrie’s extraordinary Samurai setting of the opera. Notionally in the same period as the original 1727 production but translated to the samurai culture of Japan of this period (albeit in a highly stylised fashion), there are questions however about whether Dörrie’s fascination for Japanese settings, while appropriate for the likes of Turandot and Madame Butterfly, can really be effectively applied to the Greek mythological subject of Handel’s Baroque opera, Admeto.

Happily, the answer is, yes - it works and it works exceptionally well. If nothing else, the stripped back minimal staging and measured formalised gestures of the Japanese setting suit the conventions of opera seria, with their being no unnecessary elaboration or clutter to distract from the virtuoso solo singing. But with the bold lighting, coloured backgrounds, silk screens and shadow play, not to mention the extraordinary use of Takashi Endo’s Japanese butoh dancers (most of them almost entirely naked), the director manages to make the emotional content of the subject tangible as well as heightened.

That subject is a mythological one that is well covered in opera, particularly in opera seria - the story of Admetus, the king of Thessaly, whose life is spared from a fatal illness by the sacrifice of his wife Alcestes. Gluck’s opera Alceste covers the same story in a rather cut-down form without the Antigone subplot (Robert Wilson’s minimalist production of Gluck’s Alceste from the Châtelet Theatre in Paris, available on DVD, compares favourably with the production of Admeto here), but the storyline is much more involved in Handel’s version. To their credit of the director and producer, the staging here is magnificent, bringing out depths in the relationships and conflicts between the characters, particularly in the case of Alceste’s transformation into a samurai warrior accompanied by the long black-haired ghostly form of Endo’s butoh dancer representing her Jealousy. The sight of Ercole (Hercules) as a sumo wrestler in a foam fat-suit may however take more getting used to. The production is not without humour and may not be to a traditionalist’s taste, but it never detracts from the drama or the characterisation.

Tim Mead is fine as Admeto, but more so than the two male altos, it’s the female roles - Marie Arnot as Alceste and particularly Kirsten Blaise as Antigone - that have the chance here to show a greater emotional and vocal range, and the chance to put some strong acting behind their parts as well. Using period instruments (happily resisting any urge to include traditional Japanese instrumentation), the Festspiel Orchester of Göttingen under the direction of Nicholas McGegan is also noteworthy.

The specifications of the Blu-ray are impressive - a 1080/60i, 16:9 encode, and a sparkling, vibrant DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that far surpasses the limited distribution of the PCM 2.0 mix. There is not a great deal of detail in the staging to benefit from the High Definition transfer, but the reproduction of the vivid and striking colour schemes is nothing short of stunning. Subtitles are in a slightly small font (in Italian, English, German and French), and occasionally move to the top of the screen when necessary so as not to obscure the performers. The BD comes with a thin booklet giving a synopsis and information on the production, but a 21-minute featurette presents this better in the form of interviews with all the performers and the production team.