Chalk and talk is dead. Teachers scramble to bring history to life in classrooms up and down the country through dressing-up days and interactive whiteboard activities. Few, however, can equal Robert Carsen’s efforts in his riotous production of Handel’s Rinaldo, here on its first revival since its 2011 première. Our hero is a schoolboy, bullied and humiliated by his classmates. During a history exam on the motivation for the Crusades, Rinaldo shuffles to the teacher’s desk to sharpen his pencil – a classic avoidance tactic – and slips into a reverie where he is a brave knight leading the Christians. His brutal teachers become the Saracen King of Jerusalem, Argante, and the Queen of Damascus, the sorceress Armida. Her furies are a rebellious gang of teenage girls straight from St Trinian’s, flashing lacrosse sticks and scimitars with equal aplomb.

Karina Gauvin (Armida) © Robbie Jack
Karina Gauvin (Armida)
© Robbie Jack

Rinaldo was Handel’s first opera written for London, composed to Aaron Hill’s scenario, based on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, given its first performance at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1711. It was arguably his greatest success in this country, containing a string of show-stopping arias the public lapped up, despite the fact that only a third of the numbers were newly composed.

Historical fact is embroidered with fiction as Godfrey of Bouillon (Goffredo) leads the First Crusade. His daughter, Almirena, is the object of desire for his lieutenant, Rinaldo. Almirena is kidnapped by Armida to ensure Rinaldo is distracted from the campaign. Her scheme goes awry when Argante falls for Almirena (allowing her to flee) and then when Armida herself becomes infatuated with Rinaldo. A melting pot of politics, religion and love, should Rinaldo be presented as a vehicle for comedy?

For the most part, it works wonderfully. Carsen’s creation is quite brilliantly realised, revived here by Bruno Ravella. Christians and Muslims are delineated by costume but also – in the opening scenes – by arranging desks into cross and crescent formations. Visual gags flood the stage: from the chalkboard boat which circles a magic island (turning upside down) to the E.T. reference as Rinaldo’s bicycle-steed becomes airborne before a giant moon during “Venti, turbini”. The final battle between Christians and Muslims is decided by a wittily choreographed game of playground football. Just when you wonder if Carsen hasn’t wandered too far down the comic road, we’re confronted with moments of emotional truth, such as Rinaldo’s “Cara sposa”, his lament for the abducted Almirena, played out with the greatest simplicity.

Iestyn Davies (Rinaldo) © Robbie Jack
Iestyn Davies (Rinaldo)
© Robbie Jack

Ottavio Dantone ensured scintillating playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a pretty full account of the score (only three arias are given the chop). He injected Italian passion into the playing; highlights included a trilling sopranino recorder in Almirena’s charming “Augelletti, che cantata”, stormy string playing in Armida’s “Furie terribili” and the terrifically athletic bassoon twists and turns to match Iestyn Davies’ Rinaldo in “Venti, turbini”.

Iestyn Davies (Rinaldo) and Christine Landshamer (Almirena) © Robbie Jack
Iestyn Davies (Rinaldo) and Christine Landshamer (Almirena)
© Robbie Jack

It was a case of swings and roundabouts in terms of cast changes from last time round. Four countertenors now lead the charge – an unusual situation in a Baroque opera where all the male characters are sung by men! This is undoubtedly Iestyn Davies’s show; his Rinaldo was a gem of a performance, characterised by fiery coloratura, warm, strongly projected tone, yet showing ability to spin long lines. He acts the role splendidly, the little fist punch when Almirena takes his hand portraying teenage insecurities perfectly.

Stepping up from Eustazio to the role of Goffredo, Tim Mead demonstrated a very different countertenor timbre to Davies, lighter, softer, caressing the vocal line in “Sorgi nel petto” with especially fine phrasing. Against these, Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Eustazio fared less well; his nasal tone gleams at the top of his range, but his lower notes sounded strangely disconnected.

Almirena has limited opportunities to impress, especially when her entrance is delayed until the sixth scene, but Christina Landshamer’s bespectacled, plaited schoolgirl enchanted. “Lascia ch’io pianga” (adapted from two earlier incarnations by Handel) found her poised and affecting. James Laing entertained as the Magus, here a dotty science teacher, even if he was upstaged by Rinaldo’s knights going under cover as jolly hockey sticks schoolgirls.

Joshua Hopkins (Argante) © Robbie Jack
Joshua Hopkins (Argante)
© Robbie Jack

From the tentative spanking administered to Rinaldo during the Overture, Karina Gauvin didn’t seem entirely at ease as the schoolmistress-dominatrix Armida. Clad in black leather, rather than the black rubber sported by Brenda Rae last time, Gauvin was out of vocal sorts at times. Her coloratura blustered in “Vo’ far Guerra”, requiring greater vocal and dramatic brilliance; Dantone and the OAE got her out a scrape at one point. Joshua Hopkins impressed as Argante, his firm baritone negotiating some fiendish writing, especially in his entrance aria “Sibilar gli angui” whilst able to sing with beauty of tone when required.

Carsen’s take on the Crusades shouldn’t be missed. If only all history lessons were such fun!