Opera review: Rinaldo at Glyndebourne Festival

The opera is a tale of magic and romance at the time of the Crusades but director Robert Carsen turns it into a fantasy of childhood set in a schoolroom, with the blackboard a doorway into a world of outlandish medieval imagination. There were some good bits, notably a wonderfully slinky evil witch commanding a team of furies from Hell who could have come straight from St Trinians, but I felt this did not justify the inherent disrespect to the original opera.

The second time I saw it a few years later, my opinion changed and I was surprised to enjoy it hugely. Nothing much had changed, but I felt the cast were heartily enjoying themselves and playing it more convincingly for laughs.

So this year’s production, revived by director Bruno Ravella, was for me a sort of best-of-three decider. And after a slow first act, which left me undecided, the whole thing seemed to take off as a great piece of operatic comedy.

I still saw some of the audience shaking their heads in despair at what had been done to Handel’s original, but I loved it.

Handel’s music, beautifully played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by the young Russian Maxim Emelyanychev, is glorious to listen to and a number of ridiculous set pieces are splendidly played by a very talented cast.

A boys-against-girls football match, which utilised the similarity between the names Rinaldo and Renaldo, was predictable enough, but the sight of schoolboy Crusaders on bicycles was more astounding, particularly when it allowed a delicious Spielberg tribute as we saw the hero cycling through the air in ET style.

Polish countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski gave an excellent performance in the title role, which he took at short notice when the original singer had to drop out, but the real star of the opera was Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan who sang beautifully and really looked the part as the wicked Armida.

First setting out to destroy Rinaldo, then falling in love with his heroism, Armida’s character is ludicrously unconvincing if the plot is to be taken seriously, but Carsen’s production is so outrageous anyway, that it all adds to the humour, particularly when played with such Cruella de Vil villainy as Mkhitaryan does.

Tickets: glyndebourne.com or 01273 815000 (last performance August 25)

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