It’s the second school “outing” of the season. First Christopher Alden took Britten back to visit his past in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at ENO and now Robert Carsen is playing schoolboy heroics and fantasy football with Handel’s Rinaldo. Yes, it’s history in action in this particular classroom: a giant blackboard is our portal to the past, a terrestrial globe is the prize for warring factions in the First Crusade. Schoolboys don armour and the leather-clad sorceress and Saracen Queen, Armida, has recruited her furies from St. Trinians.
Well, it’s one way of offsetting the follies and improbabilities of baroque opera – and, in this instance, the size of the powerful warrior knight Rinaldo – as played here by the diminutive Sonia Prina. She is a dead ringer for a lovesick, blazer-clad, fourth-form, loner – but from the moment she starts singing she/he is two feet taller and dominates the stage with blistering coloratura: one fiery trumpet toned aria after another. There’s a lot of aspirating and diaphram-popping in the delivery of these wicked pyrotechnics but technical issues apart it does the job and though the voice is small, the bearer is charismatic, her quiet singing infused with gripping rapture and fantasy.
And she endured added drama on opening night as an untimely power cut plunged her/him into still darker despair with one of the evening’s great arias “Cara sposa”. What a moment for this to happen. And yet Prina sounded even better when the lights came back on.
There is no limit to the suspension of disbelief in theatre or, in this case, Carsen’s juvenile sense of fun. For trusty steeds read bicycles, for the torments of hell cue whizzbangs and fireworks. As for Armida (Brenda Rae – brilliant on top but less well projected and dodgy of coloratura in the middle voice), she’s full of surprises. What we see can and does contradict what we hear and when Rinaldo imagines his bleak, wire-meshed schoolyard as the idyllic playground of romance it is the pristine flute and piccolo of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ottavio Dantone (a compendium of sonic surprises) that transports us to Arcadia.
Smashing singing from Luca Pisaroni as Argante (what a commanding entrance aria), countertenor Tim Mead as Eustazio, and Anett Fritsch (simple and touching in her hit number “Lascia ch’io pianga”). And like young Rinaldo, I did feel a touch deflated when it was game over.