The story is based on Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata and it is about the first crusade. But, at Glyndebourne, they thought it proper to put the action in an English boarding school, where a boy is bullied, harassed and beaten by his classmates, the teachers punish him instead of the bullies, and then they ask the pupils to write an essay on the first crusade (all this happens during the overture). And so the boy starts daydreaming, in his dreams the crusaders come to save him from the bullies, he is Rinaldo, the Christian hero, the two teachers become Armida and Argante, the Muslim witch and the sultan, Almirena (Rinaldo’s beloved) is of course the girl he has a crush on, and the bullying classmates turn into manga-like little girls (don’t ask).
The costumes are half and half between the English boarding school and the crusaders’ armor.
Now, the idea may be charming, but the problem is that the director went too often for the easy laugh, the slapstick comedy; the result is trivial, even vulgar, and everything turns into a grotesque farce, where the people in the audience laugh their head off (and, in all honesty, they seem to be having a blast). Maybe I’m too snob, but it was too much for me.
How was the music?
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is spectacular, they played beautifully, making Haendel rise in triumph over the madness that was happening on stage. The obbligato bassoon deserves a special mention. The conductor was Ottavio Dantone, a baroque specialist who did a superb job.
Iestyn Davies was Rinaldo. He has the physique du role, he really looks like a school boy, and his voice is wonderful. I had already heard him in March in Rodelinda, and here he confirmed my first impression: he is a first-rate countertenor. He has a strong coloratura, but gives his best in the lamentation arias. His Cara sposa and Cor ingrato were amazing.
The aria at the end of Act I Venti, turbini is one of those arias where the singer must explode in coloratura fireworks (above, the version of the queen). Iestyn Davies sang this aria while riding a flying bicycle in front of a giant moon (like E.T.), while everybody laughed merrily. I wanted to die. But he did a fantastic job, A+ for his nerves of steel.
The opera features three (3) other countertenors, in the parts of Goffredo (the chief of the crusaders), Eustazio (his lieutenant, I think) and a Christian wizard (yes, I know, it’s an oxymoron, what can I say). The singers were, in order, Tim Mead, who I liked very much, Anthony Roth Costanzo, a little too much metal for my taste, and James Laing, who I have no idea how he sings because his voice drowned in the orchestra, and in the audience’s laughs. Mead and Costanzo did a very good job in their arias.
Almirena was Christina Landshamer, very sweet voice, but not very impressive. She has the best aria of the opera (Lascia ch’io pianga) and she did it very well, daring original variations, but I wasn’t moved.
On the Muslim front we had Joshua Hopkins’ Argante, not utterly precise, but very charismatic, and a rip-roaring Karina Gauvin as Armida, who maybe was a bit lacking in sparkle and precision, but was clearly having the time of her life in the leather-clad dominatrix role.
The Festival in Glyndebourne itself is a blast: everybody in evening gowns and tuxedos, having a picnic in the park, every opera freak should experience it at least once in a lifetime. Brilliant.