To Glyndebourne, for the opening night of Handel's Rinaldo, the first of his operas to be staged in London in 1711, when he was just 26 years old. The opera was a roaring success at the time and the most-repeated of all Handel's operas during his lifetime and yet has been over-shadowed in recent decades by his other great masterpieces, with the result that Richard's Carsen's new production for Glyndebourne is the first in Britain for over 30 years. It is a tricky job to summarise any of Handel's operas in a few lines, but I find that a little algebra helps, so here goes....Setting: the Crusades; Act I: Crusaders led by A aided by trusty knight B who loves C. Opposition: the Saracens, led by X and his lover Y. C abducted by Y, B sets off in pursuit. Act II: Y captures and falls for B, X falls for C, Y disguises herself as C to win B (fails). Act III: A and other trusty knights rescue B in the nick of time; both sets of lovers re-united (B+C and X+Y), both sides re-form and battle commences; Crusaders win; magnanimous in victory; reconciliation. (Key: A = Goffredo, B = Rinaldo, C = Almirena, X = Argante, Y = Armida).

Tim Mead as Eustazio © Bill Cooper
Tim Mead as Eustazio
© Bill Cooper
In practice, the first Act took a bit of fathoming out and it has to be said that Robert Carsen's new staging was of no real help in this respect. The almost silent groan through the audience as the curtain went up to reveal the modernist slant turned out to be not entirely unjustified. As with the recent Christopher Alden production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the ENO, we started out back at school but, unlike the ENO production where realism abounded and the setting served truly to enlighten, this was rather a token updating of the tale and in my opinion would have succeeded better had it followed through properly. However, by Act II, things started warming up in every respect; the story got properly moving and the singers also started to hit their stride - even the idiosyncrasies of the setting ceased to jar. There were some pleasing touches of humour, including a "lights out" scene at boarding school with the Saracen army shown as a pack of St. Trinians schoolgirls, and the battle between the Furies and the Knights represented by an amusingly staged football match, together with some clever stage tricks such as the boat scene and use of a blackboard to convey important details.

Despite being Handel's first, the opera abounds with wonderful music and a full range of arias, which can be seen, with hindsight, to lay down markers for his great operas which were to follow. Goffredo was sung by the Armenian Varduhi Abrahamyan with a rich mezzo-soprano that grew in stature as the evening progressed, as indeed did Brenda Rae whose impressive singing was even more so considering that she spent most of the evening in skin-tight leather and vertiginous stilettos. Luca Pisaroni's Argante was nicely a nicely balanced, rather thoughtful interpretation which shone through the drama.

The role of Almirena was due to be sung by Sandrine Piau, but she had been forced to withdraw even before the rehearsal stage due to a serious leg injury. Her replacement, the young German soprano Anett Fritsch, seized her chance in what is a crucial though slightly lightweight part, to present a charming and resourceful object of everyone's devotions, her famous aria Lascia ch'io pianga being gracefully and touchingly delivered.

The title role of Rinaldo was taken by mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina, who achieved the tricky task of evolving from bullied schoolboy to warrior and back again. Although an untimely power-cut interrupted her major aria - the lengthy, dramatic Cara Sposa, which Handel himself considered one of his very best - and meant she had to start again after a break of 5 minutes or so, actually she sang it much better the second time, with some heart-wrenching moments of anguish. The range, quality and strength of countertenor Tim Mead's authoritative performance as Eustazio, however, left me wishing that he had been given the title role. William Towers' brief appearance as Christian Magus was also undertaken with poise and purpose and following his last-minute deputizing for an indisposed Iestyn Davies as Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream recently (to well deserved acclaim) suggests that bigger roles must surely soon come his way.

One of the highlights of the evening was the brisk and spirited playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted with great panache by Ottavio Dantone, together with his light and dextrous continuo on the harpsichord. Here was the whole gamut of Handel's musical invention; trumpets, flutes, bassoons, timpani and particularly some wonderful, exciting, rhythmic interludes with Elizabeth Kenny swapping her theorbo for, I think, a baroque guitar.

Minor quibbles notwithstanding, there was a great deal to enjoy in this production, not least the ever-impressive Glyndebourne choruses, and the opening night house was keen to show its appreciation.