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HANDEL: Rinaldo

spacer Prina, Fritsch, Rae, Abrahamyan; Pisaroni, Mead, Towers; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Dantone. Production: Carsen. Opus Arte OA 1081 D (DVD) or OA BD7107 D (Blu-ray), 190 mins. (opera), 24 mins. (bonus), subtitled


Revisionary Handel has brilliantly illuminated Glyndebourne's stage at least twice. I'm thinking of Peter Sellars's prison-themed Theodora (1996) and David McVicar's cheekily upbeat Giulio Cesare (2005), which comes to the Met this season. Rinaldo — one of the composer's strongest early operas — must have seemed a compelling candidate for such treatment. Some crusades, alas, go awry. 

Canadian director Robert Carsen has helmed some theatrically excellent productions; this is not among them. Carsen and designer Gideon Davey have gone for high-concept kitsch, fetishizing the British fascination with the abusive world of "public schools" (in U.S. terms, private prep schools) and turning Rinaldo into a kind of Harry Potter fantasy knockoff. Rinaldo (Sonia Prina) and Almirena (Anett Fritsch, replacing the announced Sandrine Piau) are costumed accordingly, and the Saracens become "meanie" teachers, with Brenda Rae's Armida more supermodel dominatrix than sorceress. (It seems that for Handel divas at Glyndebourne, a cadre of back-up girls is now de rigueur.) The Christian Magus is a mad chemistry prof, and so forth. There's no need for Handel productions to channel historical period and slavishly follow stage directions — most of the great ones I've seen haven't — but Carsen's hyper-busy work here neither amuses nor resonates. It gets tired before the end of the (inevitably) staged overture. After Peter Konwitschny's Lohengrin and Christopher Alden's Midsummer Night's Dream, both of them striking, maybe the schoolroom needs some airing out as an operatic topos. 

I'd have enjoyed this live-performance release without the visuals. While meritorious, the not-especially-incisive musical performance under Ottavio Dantone, who also mans the keyboard, offers creditable playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It doesn't attain to the heights of the complete recordings under Hogwood (Decca) and Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi) in terms of overall dramatic coherence or deluxe casting. However, there is much to enjoy from Luca Pisaroni — surely the Argante of today, with stirring coloratura, a full range of dynamics and meaningfully inflected recits — and from Varduhi Abrahamyan (Goffredo), who displays memorably expressive tone and fine style. The character of Goffredo, the Crusader leader, has far more to sing than in the brutally cut and remixed 1980s edition heard at the Met — which excised altogether the role of Eustazio, here fluently sung, if somewhat archly enacted, by handsome British countertenor Tim Mead. William Towers, another very British-sounding countertenor, takes the briefer duties of the Christian Magus.

Prina, a diminutive if spunky coloratura contralto, essays Rinaldo's heroics but is hampered by the schoolboy concept. She is a fine, committed artist, with extraordinary if sometimes oddly produced coloratura; like Pisaroni, she digs into her native language to pleasing effect. I personally don't warm to her foraging among registers or to her actual timbre, which can be prickly and angular; it doessound convincingly androgynous. Fritsch's pigtailed Almirena is forced through "adorable" and utterly improbable antics involving a low-placed bird's nest (in a schoolyard?) in her introductory, sopranino recorder-accompanied "Augelletti." The German soprano makes pretty tones but doesn't always form them into legato lines. Juilliard-trained Rae, now based in Frankfurt, is a soprano on a justified rise to fame. Sounding healthy and impressive up top, somewhat less substantial in lower music, Rae carries off with what aplomb she can muster the many campy and silly Kitten with a Whip-like things Carsen asks her to do. spacer 


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