We no longer view the events of the First Crusade (1095-99) in the way Handel and his audiences did. Set during that appalling conflict, his opera Rinaldo (1711) is a gung-ho account of determined Christian knights defeating duplicitous Muslim monarchs – notably the sorceress Armida, who attempts to lure the opera’s hero from the path of virtue through her seductive wiles.
These days the overall theme can be an uncomfortable one, and it’s scarcely surprising that in his 2011 production director Robert Carsen disguises its contemporary implications by jettisoning the Holy Land altogether and setting the plot at a school where Rinaldo is a bullied pupil, obsessed with the teacher Armida, who eventually triumphs over his enemies.
Visually clever, but heartless when not actually trivial, the result is laugh-a-minute stuff, cleverly staged but frivolous, and making no real attempt to encompass the seriousness of the material as Handel undoubtedly intended.
It’s a shame, as this time around the cast is the best the production has seen. Rising star Polish countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski delivers the title role with variety and energy in an entirely charismatic account.
Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan offers flamboyant vocalism and dramatic panache as Armida, while American bass-baritone Brandon Cedel storms and frets as her unfaithful lover Argante and Italian soprano Giulia Semenzato makes her Christian rival Almirena more than the simpering nice character she could so easily be. Tim Mead does a decent job with the Christian commander Goffredo.
There’s another star performance in the pit – from the young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev in charge of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, who give of their very best.