fri 13/12/2019

Rinaldo, Glyndebourne Festival review - teenage dreams | reviews, news & interviews

Rinaldo, Glyndebourne Festival review - teenage dreams

Rinaldo, Glyndebourne Festival review - teenage dreams

Stale stereotypes abound in a production that’s a bit past its sell by date

Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan controls her unruly pupils as Saracen Queen, Armida, turned dominatrix schoolteacherAll photos by Robbie Jack

If you’d started senior school when this production premiered, you’d be finished by now and out in the world of work or at university, your first year days a distant memory. A lot’s changed since the curtain first came up on this version in 2011, and nearly a decade on, and in the wake of #metoo, Robert Carsen’s high school-set production feels more than a little out of date. Sure, it’s fun, but do we really need more stories told through the eyes of a dissatisfied juvenile male?

Carsen’s taken the plot of Handel’s 1711 opera - his first for the London stage - and transposed it into a 20th century classroom. Rinaldo is a schoolboy with a vivid imagination, who dreams up a world where he rescues and marries his crush, him and his chums are knights and he defeats his evil teachers. It looks great, although sometimes it’s a little unclear if Carsen’s trying to send a message, or just visually impress. A group of women dressed in niqabs and long black robes swirl on stage like whirling dervishes, before pulling off their outer layers to reveal short skirts, chains and fishnet stockings, transforming them into hyper-sexualised naughty schoolgirl stereotypes. Though some of the imagery seems a little pointless, the fickle nature of teenage desires are quite pertinent to the various shape-shifting and switching of loyalties that goes on in the opera.  

Jakub Józef Orliński as a schoolboy Rinaldo © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Robbie Jack

Such silliness, to be properly pulled off, needs to be impeccably executed, and this was an aspect of the production which could not be faulted. The stagecraft was slick and synchronised, and choreography completely solid. The Christian Magician in this production - sung by countertenor James Hall (pictured below) - is a crazed-looking chemistry teacher, who's controlled explosions provide a fun element of frisson. Sometimes though the showiness of it all was a bit too much, and overshadowed the music’s subtle, suggestive swagger.

In essence, the production’s all just a bit too silly. Which is a shame, because behind the needless flamboyance was some truly fantastic music making. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the baton of the young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev - who is soon to take over as Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - were on tremendous form, the rich timbre of their period instruments giving the music a burnished, golden hue.

James Hall as a crazed chemistry teacher © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Robbie Jack

In the title role, Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński gave a sparkling performance, singing with lightness and clarity, displaying impeccable control when being flown from a bicycle at the end of act 1! His betrothed - Almirena - was beautifully sung by Giulia Semenzato. The Saracen queen Armida - or in this production, a stern teacher turned to pvc-clad dominatrix - was sung by Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan, who performed the role with an assertive force, and duetted with Orlinski with a lustrous blend. Tim Mead’s Goffredo was light yet substantial, and Brandon Cedel sang the role of Argante with a robust strength. Musically, this was a splendid offering. It’s just a shame some of this was overshadowed by a production that's lost some of its relevance.

Comments

"Do we really need more stories told through the eyes of a dissatisfied juvenile male?" Surely the answer is that it depends on the attitude of those stories to that dissatisfied juvenile male and his experiences. When I saw this production in its previous revival in 2014, I read it as simultaneously a satire on the work itself, with its naively, one-sidedly heroic vision of the crusades, and on the immaturity of the schoolboy hero who (unlike director Carsen and his assumed audience) endorses that vision. Although the theme could perhaps have been treated with a little more seriousness, the relevance of such a production is surely clear after two decades in which, precisely, naive, one-sided attitudes to the Middle East on the part of Western politicians and ideologues practically led to a real-life re-enactment of the Crusades, with all the appalling consequences that has entailed. This was certainly relevant in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, and it has scarcely exhausted its relevance now, in the time of ongoing wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Yet I also wonder if "relevance" is necessarily what we should be looking for in this context. Eight years is not actually a long time in the grand scheme of things. But spectators might be interested in returning to older productions for exactly the same reason that listeners might be interested in returning to a 300-year-old opera such as Rinaldo: that the art of the past, whether recent or remote, may express different attitudes and concerns, and embody different value systems, from our own, and that these may help us to put our own present concerns into a larger perspective. To insist on seeing all of our diverse artistic and cultural heritage from the perspective of 2019 is, in a sense, mere parochialism.

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