Rinaldo – but no sea-serpents

Straight from Opera rehearsal, to watching Opera, at Blackheath Halls, this time a production from Trinity Laban.  Home from home you’d think, (and we are considering getting camp beds put up in the recital room we are there so much) but nonetheless it required a gear change. 

I’m not familiar with Rinaldo, and we were in a bit of a rush and hadn’t bought a programme, so it was a bit of a jolt when it was in Italian.  I’ve got so used to singing opera in English I just assumed it would be.  Not that it detracted from my enjoyment in any way.  Having heard Harry Fehr’s story about Glyndbourne Dowagers, I think he would have enjoyed the ladies passing us on the steps, where we were eating a quick sandwich, “Who wrote this opera anyway?”

The characters were helpfully labelled, (modern army wear has a tendency to labels; these ones were embroidered by my next-door-neighbour, as it happens) so we knew who was who, more or less. My Italian stretches to Sposa and No, so I worked out that young Rinaldo wanted to marry the pretty young thing who was the chief honcho’s daughter and that this hadn’t gone down well with Daddy.

This is a Harry Fehr production, so we expected some witty touches and we got them.  The trumpet fanfare to announce the opposing army’s general come to talk terms was the phone going for a video conference.  The enchantress Armida, who is in league with the opposition (later, programme bought, revealed to be Saracens) seemed to be running something between and opium den and a brothel, all white day beds, and net curtains.  It has been vexing me what the design theme was… not quite James Bond – too low rent, at the same time as not being sufficiently cheesy;  I want to say Modest Blaise but I don’t know if enough people would know what I mean – it’s somewhere in the zeitgeist of The Man from Uncle, The Saint, with a dash of the original Avengers.  Tom Oldham take a bow.

A great deal of fun is had with mobile phones and laptops, and being an H. Fehr production, the cast get to move furniture and eat real food.

Plot-wise, in typical opera fashion, it doesn’t hang together at all.  Armida  promises Argante the Saracen leader that she will get Rinaldo out of the way so that the Christian army will be powerless before the Saracens, but when she has a gun to his head, instead of shooting him she shrugs petulantly and kidnaps his girlfriend instead.

Rinaldo is sung by Gordon Waterson who is listed as an alto, and certainly his voice isn’t quite counter tenor, which is what I was expecting, and lacked the vibrancy of a Christopher Robson or James Bowman. The role was originally written for a castrato, and on alternate nights is sung by a woman, if I had the time I would have tried both casts, just out of interest.  I did struggle a little with the concept Rinaldo as a great warrior, he didn’t seem the brightest chicken in the roost; letting his girl be kidnapped, gullibly following obvoius no-gooders into a trap despite being warned…

Several of the other roles were played by different cast members depending on the night, and on Saturday, Almirena (Rinaldo’s lover) was played by Daisy Brown who sang with us last year in the Elixir of Love.  She has a lovely sweet toned voice, and threw herself into the role with enthusiasm. 

However the high point for me, vocally and acting wise, was the Enchantress, Armida, played on this occasion by Susanna Fairbairn. (the characters’ names were very confusing too many similar sounding ones starting with A.)  By turns stroppy, viscious, efficient, winsome, indignant and vengeful, I particularly enjoyed Armida’s fist fight with the Saracen general, and her later tidying the in-tray on his desk.

I also enjoyed the britches part, (a requirement in any Handel Opera) on this occasion, the Christian general’s brother Eustazio, but as everyone was in camouflage anyway, s/he might just as readily been his wife or sister.  Played as cool and impatient by Dalma Krajnyak;  S/he is the rational core of the story: the one who thinks Rinaldo and Almirena should marry, the one who leads the expedition to get her back when she is kidnapped, the one who knows the man who know what they need to know; the one who tells Rinaldo not to trust the strange women they just happen to meet, and the one who rescues the remarkably ineffective Rinaldo and his beloved Almirena from the harpies that support Armida.

Handel loved to reuse his tunes; after all, back when he was writing there were no iPods or CDs so the chance of someone saying hold on, I’ve heard this before were slender.  There are several tunes that I vaguely found familiar, but in particular Almirena’s aria from her captivity is the famous one that is used in both Ariodante and Xerxes, and probably others too (Daisy sang it beautifully). 

The Orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Kraemer were excellent. The tone was jsut right and the measured pace burst into furious energy with panache.  I particularly enjoyed the trumpets, who didn’t have much to do, but really went for it when they did. 

Coming back from the interval we noticed the theorbo player alone in the orchestra space, retuning; and I pondered the decision making process that gets a musician to choose such an awkward instrument,  even if I adored the sound it made, I’d think twice about taking on something nearly twice my height!

One quibble- the marketing distinctly mentioned mermaids and dragons (which I had conflated into sea serpents).  Where were they?!!!

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

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