Reviewed by Paul Charlesworth
Every autumn, Glyndebourne Opera takes to the road to stage two or three works at selected theatres around the country. This also presents an opportunity for the company to showcase emerging artists, chorus members and orchestral musicians from its training schemes.
This year they are touring with Verdi’s Rigoletto, which I reviewed a couple of days ago, Handel’s Rinaldo and Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’amore. They have already visited Canterbury, Milton Keynes and Liverpool and, after Woking, will finish in Norwich on 3rd to 7th December.
If you live within striking distance of any of the theatres that the tour visits, this presents an opportunity, even for those who are not regular opera followers, to attend live world class performances without the need to travel far.
In Surrey, we are fortunate to have a theatre such as the New Victoria at Woking that has the capacity to stage large scale opera performances and, at the same time, offer a very comfortable auditorium and supporting facilities to visitors. It has become a regular venue for Glyndebourne and I very much hope that the company will continue to visit each year.
Rinaldo was Handel’s first Italian opera to be written for the London stage, following his arrival in England in 1712. Although it was an immediate success and enjoyed great popularity during Handel’s lifetime, it was forgotten for almost 200 years, before being revived in the twentieth century.
For an opera director, Rinaldo does present some challenges. The action is set outside of Jerusalem during the first crusade and the convoluted plot, although basically a story of love and heroism, involves much magic, sorcery and characters assuming the identity of others. Add to this the fact that, as is often the case in baroque opera, the parts of most of the main male protagonists are written for alto voices, which in Handel’s time would often have been sung by castrati and you start to see some of the problems.
Briefly, the plot involves a Christian Knight, Rinoldo, fighting in the army of Goffredo in the siege of Jerusalem during the first Crusade. Rinaldo is in love with Almirena, Goffredo’s daughter, but she is abducted by a sorceress, Armida, who is the partner of the Saracen leader, Argante. The action involves the rescue of Almirina, but along the way, Argante falls in love with Almirina and Armida falls in love with Rinaldo.
The director, Robert Carson, has overcome some of the staging issues by switching the setting to a modern school. During the overture, we see a boy’s classroom during a history lesson on the crusades. Everything that happens after this is effectively in the imagination of the schoolboy, Rinaldo.
At first, this may not seem very plausible; but in fact, theatrically it works very well. The teachers become the bad guys, supported by ill-disciplined schoolgirls in gymslips and fishnet stockings, while Rinaldo’s classmates become Christian crusaders. It is, as Glyndebourne advertises, “St Trinians meets Harry Potter.”
The deceit is supported by an ingenious set whereby a large front of stage blackboard conceals set changes and opens up to allow special effects. For me, one highlight was at the beginning of act 2, where a beautiful woman in a boat, supported by sirens and mermaids seduces Rinaldo into deserting his colleagues and becoming an enemy captive himself. This was an imaginatively choreographed and hilariously executed answer to the problem presented by boats on stage.
At times, this production is shamelessly played for laughs, but since we can only guess at contemporary production styles and audience responses to baroque opera, it seems easier to get away with this than it would be in the case of Classical or Romantic works. It is, for example, inherently unreal to a modern audience to be presented by four countertenors all warbling away in a high register as we experience in the final act of Rinaldo.
Jake Arditti does sterling work in the title role, with soprano Anna Devin as his beloved Almirena. Goffredo is sung by James Hall and Tom Scott- Cowell plays Gofrredo’s brother, Eusatzio. This trio of countertenors, who represent the heroic Crusader side, all perform exceptionally, but at times, the show is stolen by Jacquelyn Stucker who plays the sorceress, Armida, seductively dressed in a tight-fitting. black PVC dress, which does not appear to restrict her ability to hit the high notes. Anna Devin puts in a well-pitched coy performance as Rinaldo’s girlfriend, Almirena, adorned in glasses and pigtails, while the American Baritone Aubrey Allicock is appropriately sinister and wicked as the Saracen leader, Argante.
Special mention should go to the orchestral support under conductor David Bates. The musical account, largely performed on period instruments was immaculate throughout.
Altogether, an evening that was very much enjoyed by the audience and apparently by the performers as well. If you want to see Glyndebourne’s Rinaldo, the last opportunity on this tour will be at Norwich Theatre Royal on 6th December, but I have no doubt that this very successful production will be revived again at some future date.
For more information and tour dates visit www.glyndebourne.com.
For other shows at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking visit www.atgtickets.com/new-victoria-theatre or call the box office on 0844 871 7645.
New Victoria Theatre, The Ambassadors, Peacocks Centre, Woking, Surrey, GU21 6GQ