The story of Christian invaders and Moslems defending Jerusalem, with both sides using magic to aid their efforts, is not a matter of great emotional or psychological depth. It may have been set in the Crusades but has nothing to do with history, religion or even common sense: by removing the invaders hero Rinaldo, the defenders think they can end the war. So Armida sends him off to an enchanted island, far from the deserts surrounding Jerusalem.
Some members of the audience might feel disconcerted to be listening to Handels wonderful score, whilst at the same time watching a seemingly unconnected piece of drama played out on stage. However if you understand the premise of director Robert Carsen at the outset, that the story is the daydream of a lovesick adolescent schoolboy, then everything begins to make sense, or should do.
Three hundred years later, in 2011, what recent example might Hill and Handel latch on to of the way to create a similar sensation and a financial return? The most popular and money-making entertainment of the last decade is the highest grossing film series of all time, set, by coincidence in a school for magicians. The social background of a large percentage of Glyndebournes paying punters is probably middle-aged and private-school educated. Tap into the nostalgia of a generation, put together the magic and that collective school they all went to, and the result is a combination of Hogwarts and St Custards. That school, conceived in the 1950s a decade which would still appear to represent our national childhood and alma mater of one Nigel Molesworth, was the product of the collaboration of Geoffrey Willans and cartoonist Ronald Searle. Searle had already created the girls of St Trinians (school motto Always strike first) who reappear, violent and erotically delinquent, as the home team in the opera. Finally, as to bloodshed in the Middle East nothing has changed; for as Molesworth, himself a daydreamer, opined: “History started badly and hav been geting steadily worse.”
With those connections in mind the setting by Robert Carsen not only becomes coherent, but the similarities become increasingly and frighteningly uncanny. In fact his approach becomes self-vindicating as the characters start doing things so ludicrous that not even the most grown-up production could really make such an absurd plot plausible or engaging. For me, the staging worked brilliantly and the singing and music were quite outstanding.
The high-lying voice of countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Rinaldo was focused and elegant, his coloratura was secure and he excelled in his da capo aria Venti, turbini at the end of Act I. Elizabeth Watts as Almirena, Rinaldos beloved, sang with warmth and her moving aria Lascia chio pianga, despite its ornamentations, still projected unadorned intensity.
As Argante, leader of the bad guys, Joshua Hopkins brought out the malevolence of the character intelligently, with an elegant singing voice of great depth and range. Ana Maria Labin, as Armida, had great stage presence and and performed with conviction; a cane wielding dominatrix, transformed from a demented school teacher looking for victims to thrash. Her opening aria Furie terribili was delivered with force and fire as she descended out of the translucent blackboard time-portal in a cloud of smoke.
Under conductor Laurence Cummings, the orchestra was lively and articulate throughout. Cummings also dazzled with a harpsichord solo, in Armidas revenge aria Vo, far Guerra, as did leader Michael Gurevich with his violin solo in ‘Venti, turbini. There was also a beautiful sopranino recorder solo, from the balcony box, in Augeletti che cantata by Emily Askew.
With cheerful trumpet and drum outbursts building the work towards a triumphal conclusion, good triumphed over evil in the final battle fought on the playing field, as Carsen finally succumbed to the link between the eponymous warrior hero and an equally effective Portuguese striker. Crusaders 1 Saracens 0, or as Molesworth reflected: it is a tuogh game but it is a pity you canot win by hacking everybode. You have to be nippy It is a funny thing tho your side always gets beaten whichever skool you are at. That is like life i supose.”