BBC Proms reviews

Prom 55: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Dantone @ Royal Albert Hall, London

25 August 2011

The above star rating reflects only the musical aspects of the semi-staging of Glyndebournes production of Handels Rinaldo, adapted by Bruno Ravella for the Royal Albert Hall from Robert Carsens full-blown staging in Sussex.

Although constrained somewhat by the size and lay-out, Ravella managed to incorporate enough from the original to convey its provocative, undeniably unusual, but in the end frankly ludicrous ideas. Set, like the recent ENO A Midsummer Nights Dream, in a boarding school although with little of the gloomy menace of Christopher Aldens production Carsen has Rinaldo and his comrades as the boys pitted against a group of bondage-loving schoolgirls in the St Trinians model, commanded by the PVC-clad, stiletto-wearing and whip-brandishing dominatrix Armida.

While updating historically-set operas is never to be discouraged, taking what were meant as other-worldly, terrifying figures in Armida and her furies and turning them into figures which, into todays world, will only ever provoke laughter, makes a complete mockery of Handels (and his librettist, Giacomo Rossis) dramatic intentions. Suggesting that Armida and Argante ought to be feared because of their positions as teachers in an imaginary school, rather than for their supernatural powers, was an idea that fell flat from the very opening.

That said, within the ridiculous macroscopic scenario, there were some nicely-worked moments and jokes, such as the Christian knights/schoolboys mounting bicycles instead of chargers, or the final battle scene as a football match (with a globe for the ball) between the two sides, with the only goal of the game being scored by Rinaldo (or was that Ronaldo?). Having William Towers, as the Christian magician, appear with crazy-professor hair and a chemically-stained lab-coat brought the house down, as did Armidas lengthy exit at the end of Act II, strolling around the audience picking on people with her whip, before giving conductor Ottavio Dantone (who all the while had been improvising away on the harpsichord in the manner of Dudley Moores Beethoven sonata sketch) a sharp rap across the knuckles.

The music was near-faultless throughout. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was the outstanding performer in a glittering cast, seizing the spotlight in his entrance aria Sibilar langui dAletto and smooth and effortless all evening. Brenda Rae, as Armida, had the vocal histrionics to match her characters capricious and wicked nature, while Varduhi Abrahamyans Goffredo was a moving and convincing soldier and father.

The two central lovers, Sonia Prina as Rinaldo and Anett Frisch as Almirena, were a delightful match their duet Scherzano sul tuo volto/Ridono sul tuo labbro was my favourite moment of the evening, amid stiff competition. If Almirena came across as slightly wet in nature, rather than the daughter and beloved of military men, that was surely only because of her depiction as a gawkish, bespectacled and pig-tailed schoolgirl but it was a refreshing change to hear the operas show-stopper, Lascia chio pianga, sung by Frisch with a force and anxiousness that reflected Almirenas plight, rather than as a sugary-sweet mini-scene.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were as dazzling as ever, and Dantone was as brilliant as a conductor as lead continuo player particular mention also to his continuo colleagues Jonathan Manson on cello and Elizabeth Kenny on theorbo and Baroque guitar. In short, this was a stunning performance as long as one closed ones eyes.

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