Robert Carsen’s 2011 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s first London opera opened to mixed reviews in 1711. The original piece focuses on the First Crusade, with the Christians triumphing over the wicked sorceress Armida and her paramour Argante, Saracen king of Jerusalem, in their fight for the Holy City. That’s a difficult subject to handle these days, but to transfer the action to a boarding school, where it becomes the fantasy of a bullied boy about his fellow pupils and teachers, seems a cop-out; the heroic is replaced by an ironic even facetious tone, which turns a serious opera into a would-be comic one.
Despite major reservations about the concept, it’s impossible to deny the effectiveness of the staging: some moments – the sequence of explosions carried out in the chemistry lab, for example – are memorably visualised.
All the individual performances are well-acted; the the Blu-ray edition providing added detail. Vocally, too, there are some impressive offerings. Contralto Sonia Prina may lack the ideal heroic metal for Rinaldo, but she punches above her weight. Soprano Anett Fritsch is pure and true as Rinaldo’s fantasy girlfriend, Almirena. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni provides a vivid presence as Argante, while soprano Brenda Rae is visually alluring if vocally not quite substantial enough for Armida. Of the secondary roles, countertenor Tim Mead’s liquid-toned Eustazio stands out.
Ottavio Dantone conducts a strongly characterised performance founded on the alert playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Worthwhile extras show Dantone, Carsen and various cast members talking with enthusiasm about the piece and the somewhat dubious production.