Rinaldo, Glyndebourne, July 2011

The Siege of Jerusalem in 1099 is represented here by public schoolboys versus St. Trinian’s. Hockey sticks against lacrosse sticks. Super fun, and a rather good background for all the youthful amour and magical manipulations that form the heart of this Handel opera. The main feature of the story is that Rinaldo is in love with Almirena, daughter of Goffredo, aka Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the military leaders of the First Crusade. After the expected success against the enemy, they will marry.

Argante and Armida, all photos by Bill Cooper

Alarmed at the prospect of losing, the Saracen chief, Argante, calls on the sorceress Armida for help, and she promises to remove Rinaldo from the battle. Her girls abduct Almirena, and attract Rinaldo onto a boat to find her, bringing him to Armida’s magic realm. She herself then appears as Almirena, and though she can’t fool Rinaldo she certainly deceives her beloved Argante who admits his passion for this new vision of femininity. This infuriates Armida, who finds herself falling for Rinaldo. Confusing perhaps, but it’s a rather clever trick of director Robert Carsen to play the whole thing in terms of schoolboys and girls, along with the odd teacher.

Armida and her girls

Armida herself, wonderfully sung by Brenda Rae, was a stunningly attractive teacher in a tight black rubber dress. Her pretty brunette pupils in their short skirts and fishnet tights also appear in floor length grey gymslips and blond hair, and at the beginning are clad in black robes and veiled in niqabs. Magical transformations are part of the plot, and their appearance with blond hair matched that of Almirena, who was charmingly sung by Anett Fritsch — she replaced Sandrine Piau whose absence was due to an injury. Armenian mezzo, Varduhi Abrahamyan made a very handsome Goffredo, with Sonia Prina as an excellently schoolboyish Rinaldo. Ms. Abrahamyan sang beautifully, gaining strength during the performance, and Ms. Prina exhibited a fine heroic timbre.

Tim Mead as Eustazio

Goffredo’s brother Eustazio was strongly sung by counter-tenor Tim Mead who fitted the role to perfection in this production, looking very much a sixth former. A second counter-tenor, William Towers sang well in the relatively minor role of the Christian magus. Countering this range of soprano to contralto voices is the bass role of Argante, superbly sung here by Luca Pisaroni. In the orchestra pit, Ottavio Dantone provided excellent direction to thirty musicians from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducting and playing the harpsichord.

Rinaldo and Armida

This was Handel’s first Italian opera for the British stage, performed in 1711, and though there was a revised version in 1731, this was the original. It’s hugely enjoyable, and Robert Carson’s production was full of surprises and clever ideas. I loved the chalkboard drawings and maps that altered in a magical way, I loved the designs by Gideon Davy, and the subtle changes in lighting, designed by Carsen himself along with Peter van Praet. What the director has done, above all, is to give enormous clarity to this fantastical story, loosely based on Tasso’s sixteenth century epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. The modern setting provides a fine background on which to play the conflicting emotions and amorous desires of the participants, which after all form the main point of this delightful opera.

Performances continue until August 22 — for details click here.

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