Opera Review: Rinaldo

Not having much of a musical education, this brief review is going to be somewhat uninformed, but I wanted to share my delight at seeing the 2011 Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo. The BBC recently broadcast this stunning tercentenary production of Handel’s first Italian opera for the London stage. It was a huge popular success at the time, though it went down like a lead balloon among the Little Englanders, who didn’t hold with operas being sung in Italian, and probably didn’t think too much of opera anyway. There was a Daily Mail demographic even then.

I loved it. Since leaving Seattle 2 years ago, and moving to Campbeltown, the stone in the heel of the woolly sock that is the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland, I have been gagging for opera. And theatre, ballet, live music, all the good things a city possesses in abundance. What was I thinking?

Anyway, enough of the angst. Rinaldo, like many operas, is extremely silly when you analyze it by the plot. It’s the music that makes it sublime, and you can’t get much more sublime than George Friedrich Handel. Rinaldo is superficially about a Christian crusade to drive the Muslims out of Jerusalem. But really its a love story between Rinaldo, brave crusader knight, and Almirena, daughter of the crusader general, Goffredo. The baddies are Argante, Muslim general, and Armida, sorceress and Queen of Damascus. Argante and Armida are an item, or so it seems. But since the military action plays second fiddle to the lurve angle, Agante falls in love with Almirena and Armida with Rinaldo. There are battles, kidnappings, siren seductions, a quest to find magical help, and the magical help itself. Yes, the Christians are given magic wands with which to defeat the Muslims. I’m not making it up, you know. If you want the plot, it’s here.

The Glyndebourne production very sensibly goes with the flow and transposes the setting to a boarding school, with Rinaldo as a bullied pupil who imagines the opera as wish-fulfillment fantasy. Naturally, he’s the Hero and he finally gets the girl (the headmaster’s daughter) after defeating the bullies among pupils and staff. The creative possibilities opened up by this interpretation are irresistible, and the production gleefully deploys them all to great effect. The gels from St. Trinian’s appear as Armida’s demons from hell, Armida herself wears a skin-tight black rubber dress and brandishes a cane (think Miss Whiplash), the crusaders go to battle on bicycles and indulge in cross-dressing to infiltrate the enemy position. Rinaldo even has an ET moment as he bicycles across the face of a huge full moon. The whole vocabulary of school is translated into the imaginative world of Rinaldo fighting his enemies. Transcending all that is Handel’s music, which melded what was always intended as a crowd-pleasing romp into something magical.

Purists will hate it. I thought it was a brilliant, bravura performance. Unfortunately, I can’t find the whole opera on YouTube, but it’s well worth adding to your collection. Here’s a video explaining how they worked out the concept.

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