Rotten Romans, the first film inspired by Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories books which have brought the past alive for decades of schoolchildren, opened in cinemas a fortnight ago. If they ever decide to tackle the Crusades in a sequel, they could do worse than look at Robert Carsen’s Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Rinaldo for inspiration. When a nerdy schoolboy – countertenor, naturally – is bullied, he drifts into a daydream where he leads a hapless bunch of Christians in battle against the Saracens. It’s a riotous staging that once again had the audience roaring with laughter.

Jakub Józef Orliński (Rinaldo) and ensemble © Robbie Jack
Jakub Józef Orliński (Rinaldo) and ensemble
© Robbie Jack

Carsen’s staging, expertly revived by Bruno Ravella, is inspired, turning a dry-as-dust history lesson about the Siege of Jerusalem into a teen fantasy based on Rinaldo’s quest to rescue Almirena from the Saracen king, Argante (the headmaster). His mistress, Armida, becomes a PVC-clad whiplash dominatrix – I seriously feared for the blood pressure of some of the elderly gentlemen in the audience! – leading a gang of St Trinian’s bad girls. The playground serves as the pastoral idyll where Rinaldo and Almirena declare their love. Goffredo’s “knights” hand in their strategy plans as homework, charging into battle on bicycles, Rinaldo pedalling furiously as his steed takes off before a giant moon (in a neat E.T. reference).

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Armida) and Brandon Cedel (Argante) © Robbie Jack
Kristina Mkhitaryan (Armida) and Brandon Cedel (Argante)
© Robbie Jack

Armida lays a siren trap for Rinaldo in the form of Almirena clones who lure him away from his knights. The Christian Magician whose counsel they seek turns out to be a mad chemistry professor. Act 3 is often laugh-out-loud funny as the hapless crusaders don schoolgirl uniform and ambush Armida’s gang wielding hockey sticks as weapons. The decisive battle is a playground football match, a slow-motion ballet with a globe beach ball, brilliantly choreographed.

It was just a fortnight ago that the production lost its leading lady, resulting in Jakub Józef Orliński stepping up from Eustazio into the title role. The Polish countertenor has already sung Rinaldo (at Oper Frankfurt in January) and his performance here was outstanding in every way. His voice has real resonance, projecting well and bending notes in “Cara sposa” as he moved through a kaleidoscope of colours. His “Venti, turbini” was sensational. Orliński, an accomplished breakdancer, has all the moves with some nifty footwork – and sword-work – in Carsen’s dance routines.

Jakub Józef Orliński (Rinaldo) © Robbie Jack
Jakub Józef Orliński (Rinaldo)
© Robbie Jack

Of the other three countertenors in this production (what’s the collective noun?), Tim Mead reprised his noble Goffredo from 2014 (he sang Eustazio when the staging was new). I’ve long admired his honeyed tone, especially evident in a beautiful rendition of “Sorge nel petto” in the third act. Patrick Terry, replacing Orliński as Eustazio, took time to settle, his countertenor strained at the top, and James Hall was an effective Magician, although his aria is upstaged by the locker room antics of Rinaldo’s warriors.

Giulia Semenzato made for a sweet, pure-toned Almirena, duetting exquisitely with the piccolo in “Augelletti, che cantate”, while her short phrases gave her vocal line in the hit number “Lascia ch'io pianga” an appropriately sobbing effect.

Jakub Józef Orliński (Rinaldo) and Giulia Semenzato (Almirena) © Robbie Jack
Jakub Józef Orliński (Rinaldo) and Giulia Semenzato (Almirena)
© Robbie Jack

Kristina Mkhitaryan is rarely heard in Baroque repertoire and her Armida was something of a revelation, with rapier-like top notes flashing as brightly as her scimitar. Her aria di furore “Vo' far guerra, e vincer voglio” was often sung through gritted teeth and featured some fabulous interpolated top notes as she threw herself into this vampish role. As Argante, bass-baritone Brandon Cedel was a touch laboured in his coloratura and suffered from occluded diction. He was stronger in the slower numbers and his Act 3 duet with Armida “Al trionfo del nostro amore” was terrifically dispatched.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment had a ball in the pit, with springy tempi from Maxim Emelyanychev, who provided his own harpsichord punchlines in the recitatives. Their performance exemplified the whole production – opera seria as raucous schoolboy fun.

****1