Festival della Valle d’Itria 2018 Review: Rinaldo

Fabio Luisi & Powerful Cast Overcome Disastrous Production

By Alan Neilson

In 2012, a version of Handel’s “Rinaldo,” written for Naples in 1718, was discovered in a castle in England. It is a reconstructed version, by a lesser-known baroque composer, Leonardo Leo, who had also included parts by Vivaldi and numerous other composers. This pastiche is the version that is being performed at the Festival della Valle d’Itria, 300 years after it was last heard. Although it is not the complete version from 1718, it does bring together the various sources. The musicologist, Giovanni Andrea Secchi, responsible for reconstructing the piece for the festival, also inserted other contemporary songs, as well as his own music, which is faithful to the baroque aesthetic, to give the work cohesion. It was, therefore, listed on the publicity material as “Rinaldo” by Handel/Leo et.al.

The supposed problems of staging an 18th century baroque opera have been well-documented. The argument runs that, despite the undoubted brilliance of the music, it is very difficult to realize a successful presentation because the musical structure is very rigid, the theatrical conventions that determine the text are archaic, and the themes and values they incorporate are alien to the 21st century mindset. At best, this can severely diminish their dramatic impact, and, at worst, can be an alienating experience for the audience.

Betrayal Of the Source Material

There is, of course, some truth in this criticism, although it is easy to make too much of it. There is much to recommend in baroque opera, beyond its music, and there have been many successful productions over recent years in which directors have simply tried to re-present the opera in its original form, or at least in what we understand to be its original form, and to engage with its performance values, to tease out its themes, to explore its intrinsic beauty and elevate its sensitivities, which are, after all, part of the human condition. Some directors, however, are not so circumspect and start from the position that a baroque opera is a lost cause, that it does not resonate with a 21st century audience, that its themes and values need to be deconstructed, and that the works need to be rescued by making them relevant. In other words, they do not believe in the work. One sometimes is left wondering why exactly they felt the need to sign the contract, agreeing to direct it.

This is not an argument against the updating of a work. In itself, this can be a very successful strategy for bringing out an opera’s themes; a work could be relocated to the moon or to the 25th century or anywhere else provided the director wishes to engage, honestly and thoughtfully, with the musical and written texts. If, however, the director feels it necessary to compensate for some perceived failings on the part of the composer and librettist, or for its lack of relevance, or even worse, from the belief that it is too difficult or boring for the audience, then they undermine the work itself. Such a director is guilty of hubris. They are creating a bastardized version of the work, one in which it will inevitably create a disconnect between the staging and texts. They might have a lot to say, and it may make for great entertainment, but it is nevertheless a betrayal of the work, and as such, a failure.

The director for the Festival della Valle d’Itria’s production of Handel’s “Rinaldo,” Giorgio Sangati, seemed to fit this category, at least for this production, in which he poked a mocking finger at the values of baroque theatre, and turned, “Rinaldo,” an opera seria, into an evening of fun entertainment.

Cher, Elton John, David Bowie?

The story of Rinaldo is based around the themes of love, war and redemption, set against the background of the first Crusade, in which Christian and Muslim troops indulged in barbaric slaughter, which eventually led to the capture of Jerusalem by the Christians. It is also a magic opera, in which dark forces transform reality in an attempt to defeat the noble Rinaldo. The music is refined, elegant and graceful, full of longing, desire, anger and vengeance. Obviously, this is the perfect scenario for a fun, lighthearted evening’s entertainment, or at least, it was in Sangati’s opinion. In the opening scene onto the stage walks Elton John and David Bowie. Sorry, I meant Goffredo, the leader of the crusading army, and his brother, Eustazio. They were later joined by other celebrities, including the evil witch, Cher, and the leader of the Muslim forces, Gene Simmons, from the band, Kiss. The evening became a game of guessing the celebrity. Personally. I found Cyndi Lauper, or was it Madonna, a bit difficult, while Freddy Mercury, with his give-away moustache, was too easy. It was all wonderfully pointless, and could equally be done with any opera, to the same effect. How about Liberace as Loge or Mick Jagger as Rigoletto? Arias were sometimes sung in the character of the pop star; the best being Gene Simmons in full make-up, backed by four soldiers, shaking their heads and playing their guitars, I mean swords/staffs, in time to the music. It was well done and very funny. But the question remains: exactly what has all this to do with “Rinaldo?”

At the risk of mistranslating him, it is better left to Sangati, himself, to explain his vision of the work, “the conquest of Jerusalem could represent the ideal achievement, the pinnacle of success. If we then refocus the context, we are able to see it in terms of a musical metaphor, one that can be used to whet the imagination of a modern audience, by using two competing factions from the world of music, belonging to the recent past; pop-rock (the Christians) and dark-metal (the Saracens).”

An Entertaining Failure

Without doubt the static nature of baroque opera can be a serious problem, and often this was compensated for by the use of special effects, which were particularly extravagant in the 18th baroque theatre. “Rinaldo” was actually singled out for its excellent effects by contemporary commentators. Yet Sangati, aided by his scenographer, Alberto Nonnato, were particularly remiss in this area. In fact, it is difficult to recall a production in which the scenery showed so little imagination. The main set consisted of a black wall, with Gerusalemme written above it. Subsidiary scenes were a little better, but there was little that could be classed as outstanding. The one exception being the magic mountain which Goffredo and Eustazio climbed to rescue Rinaldo, which was populated with what appeared to be ghouls from a Michael Jackson pop video. It was well-done and captured the spirit of the production. Two elements did, however, add a degree of color to the production. The first was the lighting, designed by Paolo Pollo Rodighiero, which imaginatively and successfully illuminated the dark sets. The second was the costume designs of Gianluca Sbicca, which were a nicely blended, colorful amalgam of 18th century fashion with the pop stars’ own recognizable style of dress, of which, by far, the most spectacular was the dark long flamboyant dress of Almira, with a black feathered head dress, which captured both Cher’s distinctive appearance and the opulence of the baroque.

The staging could, therefore, be summed up as an entertaining failure; entertaining because it captured the attention, amused, and delighted the audience; a failure because it did not relate in a meaningful way to the texts of Handel/Leo et.al., it provided no insights into the work and the gratuitous portrayal of the characters as well-known pop stars was distracting, and entertaining only in the most superficial sense.

Thank God For the Music

On the musical side, things were on a much firmer footing, with the conductor, Fabio Luisi, leading the way. He drew out a refined, elegant reading from the Orchestra La Scintilla, capturing the subtle textures of the score in a precise and balanced performance. Always cognizant of the singers’ needs, he gave them the necessary space and support, which allowed them to display their talents to the full.

In the title role, and playing it as Freddy Mercury, was the mezzo soprano, Teresa Iervolino. She gave a compelling, expressive performance of the knight, and delighted throughout the evening. The voice has an attractive timbre, which she employed with intelligence and skill. Each aria was infused with emotion, and wonderfully crafted. The aria “Orla tromba in suon festante” not only showed off her brilliant coloratura, but was also imaginatively staged. A spotlight highlighted the trumpet player who stood for the aria, with Iervolino singing just above him. They then involved themselves in a musical duel. She would spin out an elaborate coloratura, he would reply by echoing the phrase. This was done on a number of occasions, each phrase becoming more complicated, until Iervolino unleashed a coloratura with a difficulty which left the trumpet player with only one option: he doffed his hat and sat down. It was splendid piece of theatre and a credit to both musicians.

The versatile soprano Carmela Remigio put in a passionate display as the witch, Armide. Remigio is a singer who is able to live a role on stage; there is never any suggestion that she is going through the motions, every facial expression, every gesture is carefully thought-through, and she inevitably becomes the focus of attention, yet she never allows her strong stage presence to dominate, as she is always attentive to the drama as a whole, and never lets herself upstage her colleagues. Vocally, she is blessed with a wonderfully rich pallet, which she uses with skill and flexibility. Her control is such, that every line is awash with subtle nuances and delightful shadings, and makes her recitatives anything but boring. In Act one, she burst onto the stage with her aria “Furie terribili,” in which she demanded that Rinaldo be destroyed. Marked “furioso,” Remigio took it to heart and gave an emotionally powerful display, built around her wonderful coloratura. Her short duet with Iervolino, “Fermati,” in which she pleads with Rinaldo to stay with her, and which he, in turn, rebuffs, showed off both singers’ talents; their intertwining lines engaged in a battle of skill as much as a battle of wills. It was a wonderful display of vocal sparring.

Goffredo was played by Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, and at one stage in the performance was the subject of a little booing. It was thoroughly undeserved, and probably the result of his conservative approach, his fioritura was not particularly imaginative, and he was, occasionally, a little on the quiet side. Nevertheless, he gave a solid interpretation of the role, his voice displayed a pleasing timbre, which he used convincingly to bring depth to his character.

Goffredo’s daughter, Almirena, was played by the mezzo, Loriana Castellano, who produced a sympathetic interpretation. Her act one aria, “Augelletti, che cantante,” nicely captured her performance; calling upon the birds to tell her where her love, Rinaldo, has gone, she span out soft vocal lines, dressed with subtle ornamentations, suffused with longing, in a beautifully sung rendition.

Dressed in black, with jet black hair, and a painted black and white face, Francesca Ascioti made a fearsome Argante, which she supported with an energetic and aggressive vocal performance. Her heavily accented phrasing brought the recitatives alive, and her attractive tone underpinned by a splendid coloratura, and carefully crafted ornamentation, made for a convincing and thrilling interpretation.

The mezzo-soprano, Dara Savinova, played the uninteresting part of Eustazio, but she made the most of it, phrasing the recitatives carefully and dispatching her arias with skill.

Arriving on a swan, the soprano Kim-Lillian Strebel, playing the small role of Uno Spirito della Donna, produced a very good performance, and delighted the audience with her aria, “Il vostro maggio” which she sang with a graceful elegance and an attractive tone.

Without doubt this was an interesting presentation of “Rinaldo” by Handel/Leo et.al., containing a lot of interesting music, of which the vast majority is by Handel himself, for this is still clearly recognizable as Handel’s “Rinaldo,” and the roles of the other contributors should not be overstated. While the singers were of a high quality throughout, there were questions to be asked about the director’s vision of the work, although to be fair to Sangati, it was hugely popular with the audience and the singers, if not to true to the spirit of baroque semi seria.



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