I have to admit: early Handel is a bit of a blind spot for me (and much late Handel for that matter). Whereas with Puccini I at least understand what people are getting out of it, with Handel I'm not quite so sure. The plots are so thin, the characters so stock and lacking in depth, the action so slow moving. In my Meistersingers review I complained of the dangers of directors "doing stuff" to Wagner, whereas in Handel you basically have to "do stuff" to it directorially in order to make it viable as drama. The music too is so predictable, and aside from the very obvious highlights that most scores have, so much of it seems churned out and done by rote. I have often wondered why I adore Bach so much and then am so indifferent to Handel (excepting a few arias), when superficially they are quite similar. Someone recently (I forget who) defined the difference for me: whereas Handel always does what's expected, Bach always does something unexpected. This alone doesn't explain my feelings towards each, but captures something very significant I think. I wasn't much moved by this performance so I wont be able to write anything too interesting. But here goes.
Robert Carsen's production deals with the problems of Rinaldo in a rather bold way - he has fun with it, and while not quite taking the piss, definitely plays it for laughs and creates comic situations out of moments in the libretto that aren't meant to be comic. I heard people grumbling in the interval about "directors not being able to just present the piece as intended", but really this opera would be unbearable if all that was presented was what the libretto gave us: the characters are about as deep as a puddle, and the plot is completely feeble. What Carsen does is set the whole thing in a public school, with people dressing up as knights (the Furies are goths), and while this initially seems to cheapen the thing by lowering all the crossed love stories to schoolboy/school girl crushes, the approach actually vindicates itself later, when the characters start doing things so ludicrous, that even the best "serious" production wouldn't be able to render such a crass plot believable or engaging. I don't want to ruin too many of the jokes, but it is often quite funny. In the end it all turns out to be the school boy Rinaldo's day dream, which is the most sense it could possibly make (and explains the teacher in leather bondage gear!), and rather than being an irritating revelation actually paradoxically allows you to accept the events of the evening.
It's not an unqualified success though. It's all a bit grey and bare to the point of being unfinished looking. And Carsen doesn't quite manage to stem the tedium of large tracts of the opera - apart from anything, its hard to think of enough for the characters to do during the arias, because the text gives you so little!
I wasn't too enamoured with the cast in general. Goffredo and Rinaldo were both cast as mezzos (Varduhi Abrahamyan and Sonia Prina, respectively), and neither had a particularly beautiful voice - both sounded very similar, with extremely fast, wide vibratos. Nor was the sound at all big, and timbrally, I wondered at first whether they were affecting their voices to sound more like countertenors. Neither voice was particularly flexible either, with some of the most heavily aspirated coloratura I've ever heard coming from both of them, though Prina's was particularly bad. There was almost no note at all in the most demanding passages, the machine gun like rattle of the coloratura becoming really quite unpleasant and ugly.
Just an aside about coloratura and aspirating. For those that don't know, it can be confusing when it's mentioned so I'll briefly explain it here. It is much, much easier to articulate fast coloratura passages by aspirating them. This means doing rough breathing at the start of every note so that (say) a fast scale to "Aa", becomes "ha ha ha ha ha ha ha". It is not at all necessary however to do this, and the result is far less beautiful than the much more technically challenging feat of maintaining the legato line and changing note without this interruption in the breath: Callas, Sills, Horne, Fleming and Battle are all examples of singers who wonderfully prove this and manage the hardest coloratura passages without aspirating. The classic (and probably most influential) case of aspirating in current singing is Cecilia Bartoli and I don't like it when she does it, but of course the timbre of the voice is so extraordinary and beautiful that its hard not to forgive her. But in general it's a lazy and easy way to execute these passages (try it yourself: sing a fast scale to "ha" and then to "aa" making sure that not even a hint of "h" is creeping in, and you'll see how easy the former is compared to the latter), and it's just not as good.
The other girls were better. Brenda Rae was a sexy Armida (the one with bondage gear) and has an interesting voice - it's quite a pretty youthful lyric instrument, with a lovely top, though weak lower register. Her opening line, "Furie Terribili" was delivered with incredible force and fire, though in the rest of the evening she only shone when she ascended powerfully above the treble stave. One to watch. Anett Fritsch had stepped in late as Almirena, Rinaldo's love interest, and she clearly also has a nice voice, again lacking in power, but she delivered Lascia Ch'Io Pianga very nicely indeed. Tim Mead sung the smallish part of Eustazio, a counter tenor role, and he clearly possesses a very beautiful instrument - why didn't they hire him as Rinaldo? I've liked Luca Pisaroni in things before at Glyndebourne, but the timbre was rather harsh tonight and the coloratura was horribly muddied by his vibrato.
After the incandescent performance of Don Giovanni they gave under Robin Ticciati (who it turns out is going to take over from Jurowski as principal conductor of the festival in 2013 - woo hoo! Both are great, but so glad that the replacement is so wonderful), The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in this felt a bit disappointing - none of the energy and passion was there this time, and the sound lacked the body, colour and bustle that I enjoy from Baroque orchestras. Much of the scoring for Rinaldo is very thin with just two string lines as well as continuo, so this might have been the issue, but either way, it didn't quite do it for me. And there was some truly awful oboe and bassoon playing - horribly out of tune, and flubbed solo lines.
There was something a bit odd about the evening as a whole musically - like something was missing. Part of the problem was that virtually all the roles are in the mezzo range, but I think the lack of orchestral warmth of blend with the singers also contributed to it. Luckily I went back the next night to see some Donizetti...