“An exotic and irrational entertainment”. So runs the famous 18th century definition of opera. Exotic at that time meant lands, peoples and customs from the areas lapping against “civilised” western Europe. Historic and folk memories, the stuff of children’s stories. Irrational? Perhaps all dreams – particularly those of young people – are ever thus.
That seems to have been the starting point for Robert Carsen’s production of Handel’s first London opera Rinaldo, revived by Bruno Ravella for the current tour. We begin and end in a boarding school where a pupil thinks of the girl he loves and his classmates – not to mention the staff –, bully him. As in any disjointed dream where reality melds into fantasy, the action has many levels within its confining frame and its people take on different roles as the multiple levels of music and stage drama unfold.
Conductor Laurence Cummings does wonderful things with his cast and orchestra. He’s fortunate to have two strong countertenors in the shape of Christophe Dumaux’s superb Rinaldo and, in the comprimario role of Esstazio, Christopher Ainslie. Local-girl Elizabeth Watts produces a beautiful legato as Rinaldo’s beloved Almirena, especially in “Lascia mi piange” while Ana Maria Labin pulls off all the vocal and histrionic fireworks built into the character of Armida, a dominatrix of whom definitely to beware.
Joshua Hopkins makes a fine thing of Argante’s bravura entrance aria “ Sibilar gli angui” and then, having given this perhaps his all, never quite manages to match up to this subsequently. Louise Poole as Goffredo seems vocally under-powered. Within the context of the production, Gideon Davey’s sets – all bleak rectangles are effective and there are some neat touches, such as the caracoling bicycles. It was just a pity that Dumaux’s third act “Or la tromba’ seems swamped by non-vocal antics.