Handel Rinaldo at Glyndebourne tonight. Rinaldo is set in the Crusades but has nothing to do with history, religion or even common sense. Handel's glorious opera works because it's hyper-fantasy. Knights, enchantresses, magic, battle scenes, mountains, oceans – anything but literal realism. Baroque audiences had no delusions that the opera, and all the other Orlando sagas based on Tasso, had anything to do with historical fact. They thought of the past in terms of Classical Antiquity and Arcadian Idyll. At first I didn't understand Robert Carsen's Rinaldo-as-schoolboy staging and the faux-profound statement emblazoned across the stage "Were the first Crusades the result of...........". Now, however, I get the humour. Schoolboys don't know life, so must learn from experience rather than from books. I think the way into this opera, and staging, is via Tasso, whose Orlando sagas pitch the idea of hero who wins out despite flaws in himself and in those around him Bullied schoolboys who escape in fantasy are entirely in order. (Review of the2014 production shortly in Opera Today)
At the 2011 premiere, Sonia Prina sang Rinaldo. She was a short, feisty dynamo busting with high spirits, as teenage heroes so often are. Perhaps Robert Carsen created the production around her, She, Carsen and conductor Ottavio Dantone have worked together for a long time. With Prina, Rinaldo-as-schoolboy had a certain logic, allowing some hilarious special effects, like flying across skies and seas on a bicycle. Handel's audiences were keener on spectacle and humour than on grim reality.
In this revival Iestyn Davies sings Rinaldo. In stark contrast to Sonia Prina, he's tall and willowy. While she sang with a contralto's earthiness, he sings with a countertenor's esoteric otherworldliness. Will the production still work? Tall and geeky is just as much of a teenage meme as short and geeky. Davies has a sense of humour and could well carry it off. He'd look cute in short pants. Everything pivots on Bruno Ravella, who is directing the revival instead of Carsen. Ravella directed the semi-staging at the 2011 BBC Proms, which was extremely effective because it focussed on the relationships between the characters and the crazy situations they find themselves in.
Although Rinaldo is funny, its deeper levels would not have been lost on baroque audiences. Handel, through Torquato Tasso, is also obliquely mocking the futility of war and power games. If even Almira the dominatrix Queen can make up with ferocious philanderer Argante, there’s hope for all. Last time round Luca Pisaroni's Argante and Brenda Rae's Armida were so powerful that they dominated the whole opera. Why not imtimations of kinky sex, if you're going to fool around with a sorceress? Baroque audiences weren't prudish. And we are not so naive that we don't know what goes on in boarding schools. This time round, Pisaroni and Rae won't be singing so the balance might well be different.