Another shut-your-eyes production from Glynders. The aural contributions made a fine feast. The OAE was on top form, making it clear why the music wowed audiences in 1711. Ottavio Dantone’s direction had both sparkle and pathos, and is a definite improvement on certain home-grown conductors of Handel. The cast was stunning. Tim Mead (Eustazio) was in mellifluous voice, resisting his occasional temptation to indulge in lots of vibrato. Argante (Luca Pisaroni) was marvellously well-cast; his ‘Vieni, o cara’ was a little too loud, but he made up for this in his Act II tenderness for Almirena. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Goffredo was full of gravitas – every inch the leader – and his (her?!) final aria was movingly gorgeous. Almirena (Sandrine Piau after all, housmaid’s knee and all? I wasn’t quite sure) was good and pure and delivered her lovely ‘Lascia, ch’io pianga’ beautifully. Sonia Prina was suitably heroic, negociating Rinaldo’s runs with masterful agility. The weak link was Brenda Rae’s Armida: with no stage presence and not much of a voice, she was unconvincing as the commanding, amazonian sorceress in charge of the forces of hell. However, she was done no favours by geing put into ridiculous stiletto heels, a tight PVC dress and being repeatedly made to sing from the back of the stage.
Which brings us onto the production. Quite possibly the worst Handel production I’ve seen live. Most bad productions get my blood pressure up and my teeth a-gnashing. This one was so lame, vacuous and flaccid that it didn’t even do that. It was just a nothing. The director (Robert Carsen) set it in a school. This seems to be flavour of the month, vide ENO’s fairly frightful Midsummer Night’s Dream. The overture saw various uniformed schoolboys bullying one who had a picture of a girl pinned to his desk. Two teachers walked in and caned said boy before writing something about the Crusades on the blackboard. Whereupon a bunch of crusaders burst forth from the blackboard and massacred the boys, except for the victim, who turned out to be Rinaldo. All this was very noisy, and the musicwas difficult to hear. Similar moments (when the music was swamped by silly stage noise) happened in Act II, Armida screaming out her accompaniment, and Act III’s battle.
Armida and Argante were the teachers who had caned Rinaldo. The Christian soldiers all wore school uniform under their breastplates. This is an indication of the muddle and conceptual incoherence of the production. Carsen seems to suggest that the story is a schoolboy fantasy. But it all took place in school. Now, as any fule kno, schoolboys do not fantasise about school. Why it was set in a school is still a complete mystery to me: it did nothing to enhance the plot, and seems arbitrary and random. Perhaps the production was the result of austerity measures (in which case, a concert performance would have been preferable). Most of the production was bland; some parts were terrible. ‘Venti turbini’ had to be restarted (this was the dress rehearsal) as the flying bicycle needed during the da capo, er, didn’t fly. (Hats off to Sonia Prina for singing it on the bike.) The Mage was, unimaginatively, the chemistry teacher and the long, hard path the heroes had to take to Armida’s lair was through exploding bunsen burners. Oh dear. The Act III battle was between boys wielding hockey sticks and really tarty girls with lacrosse sticks. I know one’s got to suspend disbelief, but what comprehensive with that sort of slapper plays lacrosse? To make matters worse, a globe was kicked around (introducing football into the melee) – a cringeworthy, half-arsed suggestion of world powers at war. This production is a bathetic derivation of St Trinians with gobbets of Harry Potter and ET hurled in. If I’d had to pay a couple of hundred quid for my ticket, I might have been very angry. As it is, I just shut my eyes and enjoyed some lovely music.