A stirring if fanciful epic poem about the First Crusade by Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso has, for centuries, been a rich source for artists and composers. The English impresario Aaron Hill mined it for his scenario of Rinaldo (1711), Handel’s first operatic success in London.
Staging an 18th-century opera based on a 15th-century epic poem about a 12th-century battle between Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem in our politically charged era is tricky, to be sure. The challenge is sidestepped by director Robert Carsen in his 2011 Glyndebourne production (now in revival), which shifts the opera’s setting to the overactive imagination of a lovelorn public schoolboy. How persuaded you are by this conceit will determine how delighted you are by this production.
After being thrashed by schoolmates, Rinaldo (well acted by up-and-coming countertenor Jake Arditti) transforms from schoolboy to Crusader, and the game is on.
The boy’s own atmosphere lends itself to the broadest slapstick, Harry Potter references, and, occasionally, questionable taste. The visual mash-up – helmeted schoolboy Crusaders on bicycles, schoolgirl Furies wielding hocky sticks – can be amusing, and the Glyndebourne Tour performers go all in, aided by wide-open school set and striking lighting design.
Rinaldo brims with some of Handel’s most glorious music and there’s generally fine playing from the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra under the baton of David Bates; special praise to the continuo players for disarmingly creative improvisations.
On the vocal side, Jacquelyn Stucker as Armida, the sorceress, and Aubrey Allicock as the Saracen king, Argante, both impress. But the standout is Anna Devin as Almirena. She is breathtaking in the famous Lascia Ch’io Pianga – a moment of unaffected beauty derived from real human emotion, transcending the jolly japes of this diverting but ultimately hollow production.