Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2018 production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Set in a world inhabited by sorcerers, kings, mermaids, furies, and dragons, Rinaldo is a masterpiece of Baroque opera – an extraordinary theatrical and musical experience, full of spectacle and magic.
Here are articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, programme notes from the Conductor and Stage Director, and selections from media reviews.
Enjoy this recently added video excerpt from our 2018 production of Rinaldo. “Lascia ch’io pianga” is Almirena’s plea for freedom and mercy to her captor, Argante.
Here Be Dragons:
Glynis Leyshon on Directing Rinaldo
As Glynis Leyshon prepares to direct her first Baroque opera, she is alert to both the pitfalls and the glorious promise of Rinaldo. Its music is meltingly sublime, its story and setting extravagantly fantastic. Her job is to lure an audience into its magical universe and invite them to cherish this remarkable work.
The 1711 premiere of Rinaldo was all about spectacle. A lavish entertainment with over-the-top scenic effects, it was the very first in the long string of operas the 26-year-old German-born Handel would create for the London stage over the next 30 years.
Based very loosely on the 16th century epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by Torquato Tasso, Rinaldo is a pastiche of an enigmatically historical rendition of the 1099 Siege of Jerusalem, peppered with classical Greco-Roman references, and set in a world inhabited by sorcerers, kings, mermaids, and an entire bestiary’s worth of dragons and assorted monsters.
The story introduces General Goffredo and the mighty knight Rinaldo, who are at war with Argante, the blustering king of Jerusalem, and his mistress, the wicked enchantress Armida.
Goffredo promises that his daughter Almirena will marry Rinaldo once they achieve victory. But when Armida kidnaps Almirena, our heroes embark on a quest to find a magician who will help them rescue Almirena and defeat Armida and her minions.
When Armida’s formidable magic lures Rinaldo into her clutches, she becomes so enamoured of the handsome knight that she tries to seduce him by transforming herself into Almirena. Meanwhile, Argante is overcome with pity and love for the captive, grieving Almirena.
Eventually, with the power of magic, everything sorts itself out. Goffredo and Rinaldo defeat their enemies, and the lovers are reunited.
Rinaldo is a tricky opera to stage. There is the question of how to conceive the special effects. The libretto makes as many demands on the imagination of a scenic designer as Das Rheingold – calling for seashore and mountaintop; garden and desert; fountains and aviaries; a boat on the sea; pitched battles between two armies; on-stage transformations; and hordes of bizarre creatures – dragons, mermaids, monsters, furies.
There’s also the challenge of the opera’s disparate, even incongruous mix of comedy, history, politics, religion, fantasy, and romance.
As slippery and kaleidoscopic a work as The Magic Flute, Rinaldo invites all kinds of interpretations and has elicited intriguing, even eyebrow-raising directorial choices, including a circus (with Argante as a lion tamer); singing statues propelled round the stage; Robert Carsen’s famous Harry Potter / boarding school setting; David Alden’s campy, surreal pop-art mix of religious iconography and kitsch; and a parade of semi-staged, semi-stuffy park-and-bark productions.
All this is before you even consider the music. With lively dance numbers, rousing battle music, sublime songs of love and grief, even an enchanting scene in which the orchestra imitates the sound of birds, the emotional directness and dramatic expressiveness of this music is unsurpassed.
It’s well known that large chunks of the score are salvaged from previous of Handel’s works. (Handel knew a good tune when he wrote it and recycled some of his loveliest music in Rinaldo, laying out a smorgasbord of aural delights that really is an early greatest-hits compilation.)
From the outset, Glynis and Artistic Director Timothy Vernon agreed that the paramount requirement for staging Rinaldo is to do justice to this extraordinary music, to create a theatrical experience that isn’t at odds with its beauty.
As Glynis explains, I want to awe and delight the audience – to invite an emotional investment in the drama that is as profound as that in the music, to retain the spectacle and the magic, while finding the human heart of the piece, which is there in the music.
She has sought to create a portal – not unlike the wardrobe that leads C.S. Lewis’ child characters to Narnia – that will serve as a way in to the world of the opera.
Opera is above all an aural form, and the concept of an old-fashioned radio as a portal to the world of the imagination resonated with Glynis. Her frame for the story is therefore a radio broadcast of the opera in London during the early 1940s – a time close enough to us to understand what that clean clear battle against evil was; to comprehend the struggle between light and darkness.
As the children listen to the radio, the opera comes to life through their imaginations. The toys they play with – a boat, a dragon – become part of the story as the operatic drama of war and magic draws them into a world of peril and comfort.
Glynis again: This is not so much a matter of “setting the opera in wartime” as creating a way in to the fantasy inherent in the story – and to the extraordinary musical experience of Baroque opera.
The idiom of Baroque opera, epitomized by the da capo aria – presents unique musical and directorial challenges. Handelian opera is very much a succession of solo recitative and arias, in keeping with a time when superstar singers with supersized egos ruled the opera stage.
The three parts of a da capo aria – an initial melody, a second, contrasting section, followed by a repetition of the first section, can seem rigid and, in the wrong hands, tedious.
But that crucial repetition brings with it a wealth of possibility as the singers are set free to embellish the melody with cadenzas and ornamention – not just to prettify the music or to show off their vocal prowess, but to delve into the emotional and dramatic situation, to vary the colour of the voice and connect with the character on a far more profound level.
Timothy has encouraged the cast to bring their most elaborate cadenzas for this production, to be fine-tuned for musical impact as Glynis works to infuse the action on stage with meaning: In da capo arias, the singers are not just singing the same thing; the repetition is freeing them with ornamentation and vocalise to experience another level of engagement with the music. But what does that mean visually? The staging demands not a rerun, but a deepening of the experience.
As a homage to the power of story and the imagination and to the emotional power and beauty of Handel’s music, this production is meant for anyone who responds to splendour and spectacle and song. No matter our age or level of sophistication, there lurks in all of us a childlike curiosity and love of the fantastic that asks in the face of an opera like Rinaldo, will there be dragons? How will the magic be worked? And how much will I love the music?
Sparrows and Spectacle
Although it ceased publication in 1714, The Spectator was the most influential journal of its time, and once its wide-ranging essays were republished in a series of volumes, what had started as a daily paper became a best selling classic whose name remains legendary to this day.
Addison and Steele were not at all keen on Italian opera being presented in an English theatre, and the brand new, special-effects-laden Rinaldo provided grist for a number of amusing and acerbic comments in The Spectator.
In issue #5, Addison recounted that just before the opera opened: I saw an ordinary fellow carrying a cage full of little birds upon his shoulder; and as I was wondering with myself what use he would put them to, he was met very luckily by an acquaintance, who had the same curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his shoulder, he told him, that he had been buying sparrows for the opera. Sparrows for the opera, says his friend, licking his lips, what are they to be roasted? No, no, says the other, they are to enter towards the end of the first act, and to fly about the stage.
This made Addison curious enough to buy a ticket. But he then complained that those tricky birds didn’t actually produce the birdsong called for in the opera – that was done by the orchestra.
As for the other effects, he penned a cautionary note: Rinaldo is filled with thunder and lightning, illuminations, and fireworks; which the audience may look upon without catching cold, and indeed without much danger of being burnt; for there are several engines filled with water, and ready to play at a minute’s warning, in case any such accident should happen. However, as I have a very great friendship for the owner of this theater, I hope that he has been wise enough to insure his house before he would let this opera be acted in it.
The Spectator also pointed out the ineptitude of the stage-hands. At one performance they forgot to move the wing-flats: We were presented with a prospect of the ocean in the midst of a delightful grove; … I was not a little astonished to see a well-dressed young fellow in a full-bottomed wig, appear in the midst of the sea, and without any visible concern taking snuff.
We can rely on our professional stage crew not to make that mistake in Pacific Opera’s production. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder if some intrepid director will one day devise an off-the-wall re-creation of Rinaldo’s première production, complete with mix-and-match scenery, well-insured fireworks, and sparrows dive-bombing the audience.
Notes from the Artistic Director
We end our season with a great beginning: Rinaldo, Handel’s first opera written for London – and a brilliant splash it made! The young composer was clearly at pains to display his genius to advantage: around a rather trifling plot with magical and fairy tale elements, he wove a gleaming skein of arias, some refreshed from earlier scores, others composed especially, showing astonishing depth of feeling and bubbling compositional high spirits. Rinaldo premiered on the eve of the composer’s 26th birthday (and they say the young Mozart was talented!). He was to compose almost 40 more operas, some more stage-worthy, perhaps, and with surer character development, but for those who love Handelian opera, Rinaldo has earned special affection.
But what if you don’t love opera seria, as baroque opera is known, and find that the succession of arias, similar in form (A-B-A1), tends to become tedious? I suggest bringing real focus to bear on discovering the Affekt of each aria, the emotion of the character, and the musical rhetoric and brilliant melodic invention with which Handel embodies these feelings. It is this astonishing ability to capture a whole emotional world in a few phrases that made Handel, among all the composers that came before him, Beethoven’s favourite (something I never understood as a boy, for all I knew of Handel were long, stodgy, performances of Messiah – even, or especially, when I was performing in them myself! Briefly, I allowed myself to think less of Beethoven because of it).
Heartbreak has no more moving expression in opera than Rinaldo’s ‘Cara sposa’, or Armida’s wrenching ‘Ah! crudel’, or, most famously, Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ – simple, indelible, the hallmark of supreme inspiration. There are the flashy set pieces, too: Argante’s entry aria with its festive trumpets; Armida’s first appearance, which yields nothing to the Queen of the Night. And there is Handel’s unceasing rediscovery of the sonority available from an orchestra small by our standards: listen for the gorgeous scene-painting in Almirena’s ‘Augelletti’ (Little birds).
The first production was as theatrical as the age could provide, with mountains appearing and disappearing, the whole of Jerusalem with its wall onstage, flying and fire-breathing dragons, smoky battle scenes, and, notoriously, cages of wild birds let loose in the theatre, with results easy to imagine (you can read about this in Addison and Steele’s Spectator article – they were not amused). Pacific Opera is telling the story in a way that will bring us closer to the humanity of these characters than any effort at ‘authenticity’ or medieval-historical realism would allow. I have been won over completely by the charming approach our superb director-designer team have found, and hope you too will allow your inner child to wander in this magical realm.
The rediscovery of Handel’s operas –a near bottomless reservoir of musical beauty dormant for two centuries – has occurred within our lifetime. With Rinaldo we offer our fourth Handel production, with an extraordinary cast and my great hope that you will want to hear more from a composer whose oeuvre is simply unequalled.
In architecture, art, literature, and of course music, artists like Handel delight in exploring every possible detail and embellishment – unabashedly celebrating beauty for its own sake by seeking to delight and awe their audiences with virtuosic display.
Rinaldo, a very early Handel opera (and his first for the London stage) was meant as a showcase of his considerable talents – filled with vocal fireworks and daring stage effects – here, literally, there be dragons.
So in bringing this work to the Royal Theatre stage, we first had to decide the point of view of our production. Without seeking to replicate or recreate a quasi-historical version of Baroque theatrical practice, our production nonetheless seeks to remain true to the fantastical spirit of Aaron Hill’s libretto. Without reducing the story to ‘camp’, we have sought to place Rinaldo in a world where its fairy tale elements – witches and dragons and seductive sirens – live comfortably with the authentic emotions of arias like “Cara sposa” and “Lascia ch’io pianga.”
We open the opera in a living room of a London house, in the midst of a bombing raid during WWII. To comfort her frightened children, the mother turns on the radio and as the strains of Handel’s overture fill the room, the family bids farewell to the father. Left alone, the children play and slowly drift off into the world of Rinaldo as reimagined by their own imaginations. Like the wardrobe to Narnia, the radio provides the children with a portal into a magical land where their mother is the beautiful princess and their father the handsome warrior.
As the children journey through the opera, they find comfort and delight in a story where love indeed triumphs over darkness.
We hope that you enjoy this fairy tale opera – and its wonderful cast, who truly bring its brilliant musical score to joyful life.
One of the most innovative, magical productions I’ve ever seen…
It’s one part steampunk, one part fantasy movie, one part 50s B-movie, and 100% delightful…
The set and props people absolutely deserve a mention here. From a bed of roses falling like darts from the sky, to the watering can filled with glitter, to the crystal sparkle rain, to the Volcano house, the whole show was absolutely magical…
The orchestra under Timothy Vernon was superb – led with great finesse that never overshadowed the voices, and full of lovely touches, like a sopranino recorder solo as a bird, and a blistering harpsichord solo that brought the house down. The stage direction of Glynis Leyshon was dynamic and thoughtful, with great use of a small space, and movement that was dynamic, interesting, and an absolute pleasure to watch.
This entire production is one of the most clever, imaginative productions I ever remember seeing, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If this is where Baroque opera is going, consider me a convert!
This is a superb production, beautifully staged, cleverly directed and well-performed. In this opera, there is a lot of lyrical repetition, yet thanks to Leyshon and company, we are unceasingly entertained.
The Victoria Symphony benefits from conductor Timothy Vernon’s obvious love of the material … Harpsichordist Tatiana Vassilieva was a special delight throughout – her extended solo as poor Rinaldo is buffeted by the furies was a virtuoso workout earning its own applause…
One of the design team’s triumphs is a giant moon projection with many incarnations – often featuring a creeping spider representing the sorceress’ diabolical inclinations.
Leyshon’s gift for intelligent humour works wonderfully …
This is one of the best creations I’ve seen from Pacific Opera Victoria.
Rinaldo … takes the real-life First Crusades and the siege of Jerusalem, mixes in a pinch of romance and a hint of betrayal … then tosses in a few mermaids and an evil sorceress in a flying chariot pulled by a couple of fire-breathing dragons… What’s an opera company to do with that?
Well, if you are Pacific Opera Victoria, you forgo the flying chariot (but keep one non-fire-breathing dragon), play down the point of the Crusades … and play up the opera’s storybook aspects…
Andrey Nemzer is that most unusual creature, a heroic countertenor, able to dispatch incredibly high notes with absolute ease … He can act, too, and be silly when required.
As Almirena, soprano Stéphanie Lessard had the fearsome task of delivering one of Handel’s best known and loved arias … while dressed in bubble-gum pink tulle and tied up in Armida’s giant spider web. She succeeded…
Armida herself, soprano Jennifer Taverner brought vocal power to a role that required her to be furious most of the time, with just a brief interlude for falling silly in love-at-first-sight with Rinaldo…
Conductor Timothy Vernon kept the complex music sure and steady yet lively enough to dance to.