Glyndebourne has a great track record with staging Handel’s works. In recent years, there have been great productions of Theodora, Rodelinda and Giulio Cesare, all of which have proved equally popular at subsequent revival and Glyndebourne on Tour (GTO) productions as well. This year, at the festival and now on tour, Glyndebourne staged a new production of Handel’s Rinaldo, his first opera for the London stage which excited audiences exactly three hundred years ago.

Joshua Hopkins and Elizabeth Watts © Alastair Muir
Joshua Hopkins and Elizabeth Watts
© Alastair Muir

The libretto of Rinaldo is based on Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, a popular source for operas in the baroque era. Set during the First Crusade, the Christian forces led by Goffredo (Godfrey of Bouillon) are laying siege to the city of Jerusalem, which is defended by its king, Argante. Goffredo is accompanied by his brother Eustazio and his daughter Almirena, who is loved by the Christian knight Rinaldo. Argante's ally and lover Armida, the Saracen Queen and a powerful sorceress, abducts Almirena to deprive the Christian of their hero Rinaldo, and subsequently he too is captured by Armida. However, instead of killing him, she falls in love but he rejects her. Finally, with the aid of a Christian Magician(!), Goffredo and Eustazio rescue both Rinaldo and Almirena and in the ensuing battle the Christians emerge victorious. The opera concludes with a typical chorus of reconciliation.

When Handel staged this opera in 1711, no expense was spared and the magic and sorcery in the plot were presented with lots of special stage effects including real birds and fireworks. In this production, the Canadian director Robert Carsen (here revived by Bruno Ravella) relocates the action to a Harry Potter type boarding school. Rinaldo, a schoolboy who is bullied by classmates, dreams that he is the Crusader knight about whom he studied in history class. In his imagination, his girlfriend becomes Almirena, his classmates fellow knights and his schoolteachers become Argante and Armida.

I can understand that Rinaldo is not an easy opera to relocate or modernize, and to set it as a schoolboy’s dream is a clever way of dealing with the fantastic plot and on the surface it certainly works and is fun to look at. However, by making the main characters school pupils, I felt that it trivialized the intense emotions that Handel explores so touchingly in his music, for example in Rinaldo’s famous aria “Cara sposa” or Armida’s aria “Ah! crudel”. When Armida appears as a dominatrix in a rubber suit with a whip who suddenly falls in love with Rinaldo, or when the battle between the Christians and Saracens becomes a school football match (both scenes got a lot of laughs from the audience), I felt there was a huge gap between the what the music expressed and what was happening on stage, and I failed to engage with the staging.

In terms of the singers, the summer festival boasted a very strong cast led by the suave mezzo Sonia Prina in the title role (who was quite convincing as a schoolboy), as well as classy Brenda Rae (Armida) and velvet-voiced Varduhi Abrahamyan (Goffredo). In the current GTO production, Rinaldo is played by the French countertenor Christoph Dumaux (a brilliant Tolomeo in the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare), who doesn’t look particularly boyish but is more suited to role of the knight. His high-lying voice is focused and elegant, and his coloratura was secure, excelling in his show-stopping aria “Venti, turbine”. Almirena was sung by the rising star Elizabeth Watts, whose “Lascia ch’io pianga” had simplicity and warmth, and her Act I duet with Rinaldo was also memorable. As Armida, Ana Maria Labin performed the dominatrix role with conviction and flair, although there were some technical weaknesses. I was very impressed with the Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, making his Glyndebourne debut as Argante, who brought out the malevolence of the character through his eloquent singing.

In the pit, Laurence Cummings directed the GTO Orchestra from the harpsichord. As they are a modern orchestra playing in a historically informed style, they don’t quite have the variety of tonal colours one can experience with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the summer festival, but their playing was lively and articulate throughout. Handel wrote some sensational solos for the orchestra, and special mention goes to the leader Michael Gurevich for his violin solo in “Venti, turbine”, Emily Askew whose sopranino recorder solo in “Augeletti che cantata” was heard from somewhere in the upper tiers of the theatre, and also to Laurence Cummings for his dazzling harpsichord solos in Armida’s revenge aria “Vo, far guerra”.

Rinaldo is a brilliant and audacious opera by the youthful Handel. It may not quite have the depth of his more mature works such as Ariodante or Alcina, but the music is of consistent high quality. Regarding this production, it certainly is not an unaminous success as with Glyndebourne's previous Handel productions, but as it is a rarely staged work, I recommend all Handel lovers (and other opera lovers) to catch this production during the Tour (performances in Glyndebourne, Woking, Milton Keynes, Norwich and Plymouth) and make their own judgements.