Monday, 4 July 2011

How I'd stage Handel Rinaldo

At Glyndebourne, Handel Rinaldo is being staged as schoolboy fantasy, though it's been decades since Classics were taught in schools. Review to come, but in the meantime, I thought, what else could be done with Rinaldo? It's a glorious riot of an opera. Baroque is meant to stun an audience with its audacity. The crazier the plot, the wilder the inventiveness in setting.

What a plot! Crusaders and Saracens, Witchcraft and Intoxication. The Good Guys don't do sex, the Bad Guys do, and use it to unman our chaste upright heroes. What's nice, upstanding Christian to do? Realism isn't relevant. Indeed, the whole idea of Crusades was fantasy, and an excuse for unemployed European knights scrapping over Jerusalem whuch isn't theirs in the first place. By the time TorquatoTasso got round to writing the epic poem from which numerous Rinaldo, Orlando and Armida fanstasies were born, the Crusades setting was a device to evoke an exotic, alien world where societal norms didn't apply. Escapist dreams, imagination running free. Perhaps that's why composers couldn't resist playing around with the same characters over and over.

Straging Handel Rinaldo is quite a challenge, since it'sstrong musically, though much of the drama comes from sudden scene changes - battlefield to mountainside, enchanted garden to deserted plain. You can imagine Handel's audience going "Ahhhh !" when some corny device like a painted backdriop shifts. or mechanical thunderrbolts appear. But that is part of the fun of baroque, where no-one expects literal realism.

Think about the music with its hyper colours and bravura elaboration. Exuberant music needs an exuberant setting. How you could contrast the Crusaders Tent City with Armida's magical kingdom! But that wouldn't be fair on Rinaldo and his male-bonded repressed mates. Doing Armida full-blast would wipe the floor with them. So there's a very strong case for channeling the energy in this opera on more stringent lines. The plot hinges on cosmic struggle. The baroque stage was stylized and non-realistic. Singers wore (relatively) normal clothes : if they'd followed the concepts of Classical Antiquity, they'd be semi-naked, Armida's assets fully displayed. So there's no reason why "modern" wouldn't work if the effect was to enhance the surreal implausibility of the plot. Anything but the hideous hybrid of the Met Armida where gauche, gurning nondancers flop about pretending to be giant cupids! OTOH maybe that was designed to make Renée Fleming even more doll-like in comparison.

So, no nudity, not for prudish reasions but because the singers are there to sing, extravagantly, and don't need anything stressful that distracts from what they're primarily there to do. So a simple, bright set that puts all the attention on the singing, with spectacular flashes of fantasy as punctuation, not for its own sake. What are the most fun bits in the opera? That's where the highlights go.

One interesting subtheme in the opera is the struggle between masculine values and non-masculine. In baroque times, the good guys were identified by their high squeaky voices. It's completely opposite to the concept we have today, where Men are Men, like in the movies. Modern audiences often can't get their heads around women or counter tenors singing butch roles. But building on that disjunct could add a piquant twist. Rinaldo is about a man played by a woman who's tempted by emasculating female demons, and has to be rescued by mates for whom there are no gender subtleties. The man Rinaldo played by a woman, chosen by Armida over the unequivocally masculine Argante. Did baroque audiences relish the irony? We can, today, so it wouldn't be inappropriate to work the idea into a staging.

Please read about the wonderful staging of Rossini Armida at Garsington in 2010
Now that's an intelligent, musically sensitive staging. Imagine it done with major singers that bigger houses could afford?

No comments: