Stage Door Review
Thursday, March 17, 2022
by George Frideric Handel, directed by Tom Diamond
The Glenn Gould School, Royal Conservatory of Music, Koerner Hall, Toronto
March 16 & 18, 2022
Rinaldo: “Or la tromba in suon festante / Mi richiama a trionfar”
The first full-length opera to be staged live and in person in Toronto since February 2020 is Handel’s 1711 opera Rinaldo performed by the Glenn Gould School. It is one of the finest productions from an opera school I have ever seen. The cast is amazingly talented, the design and direction are inspired and the music-making of an extraordinarily high level. It’s hard to imagine a professional production of Handel that so well captures the spirit of sheer joy in his music.
The action of the original opera, based on Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (1581) is set in and around Jerusalem in 1099. The leader of an army of Crusaders, Goffredo, is laying siege to Jerusalem, where the Saracen king Argante is confined. The Crusaders chief knight Rinaldo declares that he will marry Goffredo’s daughter Almirena when the Crusaders achieve victory. Argante, surprisingly, arrives to request a three-day truce which Goffredo grants. In this time, however, Argante’s beloved Armida, Queen of Damascus and a sorceress, arrives and kidnaps Almirena.
Goffredo, his brother Eustazio and Rinaldo set sail to search for Armida’s castle. At the castle Argante plans to kill Almirena, but overcome by her beauty falls in love with her instead. In parallel, Armida has captured Rinaldo and plans to kill him, but overcome with his handsomeness, falls in love with him instead. To seduce Rinaldo, Armida takes on Almirena’s form, but when Argante woos her she reveals herself and breaks with Argante, who claims he can defeat the Crusaders without her help.
In fact, he cannot. Both Argante and Armida are captured, they convert to Christianity and Goffredo sets them free as all rejoice at the end of war.
Director Tom Diamond has wisely made a number of alterations in the plot. Recognizing that the story features sorcerers, dragons, mermaids, sirens and other spirits, Diamond realizes that the is much more about fantasy that it is about history. The libretto’s battle between Christians and Muslims becomes a battle between the “Light Brigade” and the “Dark Forces”.
Further to this, realizing that the plot is more about the power of love than the reality of war, Diamond adds the character of Cupid (Elena Howard-Scott), who brings lovers together and later clouds the minds of Argante and Armida when they wish to kill their captives. Diamond is clearly using Handel’s 1711 version of the opera rather than his 1731 revision in which Armida does not take on Almirena’s form and in which Armida and Argante do not repent. Diamond does not have the two villains convert to Christianity, but he does have them regret their deeds and they do join in the final celebration.
In addition has changes the sex of two characters. Goffredo was originally played as a trousers role by a contralto. Here Diamond changes Goffredo to Goffreda. In 1731 Handel eliminated the role of Eustazio, which had originally been written for a castrato. Here Diamond includes Eustazio as Eustazia, who is Goffredo’s sister. The role of Rinaldo had originally been written for an alto castrato. Here Diamond has the role sung by a countertenor. In 1984, the first an only time Toronto previously saw the opera on stage, Marilyn Horne sang Rinaldo.
Diamond also alters how some of the arias are presented. He notes, quite rightly, that many of the arias in the opera are written almost as duets for voice and an single instrument. Diamond puts this idea on stage by having the instrumentalist appear on stage in costume with the singer during those arias. Most memorable, perhaps, is Almirena’s aria in the garden in Act 1, “Augelletti, che cantate” in which Almirena (Mélissa Danis) imitates the song of a bird, as played on the piccolo by Sarah Pollard. (There’s no need for the recorded birdsong.) Other costumed onstage accompaniments come from a violinist (Ava Shadmani), a bassoonist (Alexander Ledesma) and an oboist (Paul Goeglein). Diamond’s concept is delightful since it highlights the playful artifice of the entire opera and emphasizes the interaction of vocalist and instrumentalist.
Designer Teresa Przybylski fully supports Diamond’s concept by clothing the “Light Brigade” in white with black decorations and the “Dark Forces” in black with white decorations. The five onstage musicians she places in grey and Cupid is in a fiery red. The costumes of all the characters, except for the flowing dance outfit for Cupid, have a vaguely medieval outline with trousers stuffed in boots topped with pirate blouses or short jackets with a decorated cloth gorget for Argante. There is no set only various props carried in. These include planks – white on one side, black on the other – that represent shields or swords or even Goffreda’s ship. Especially pleasing are the colourful stylized trees for Almirena’s garden that are blasted into blacks, whites and greys after Armida’s appearance.
The absence of a set means that lighting designer Jason Hand has a chance to demonstrate a huge range of lighting effects, more per minute than is usual in an opera. Strobes accompany supernatural effects, characters are highlighted by pin-spots, rolling projections on stage make spirits appear to glide across it and bright circles of light signal the magic force fields that hold Almirena and later Rinaldo captive.
Of course, the most imaginative design ever would go for naught if the singing did not match it. The Glenn Gould School does not disappoint and has to hand one of the strongest casts it has ever mustered, something the difficulty of Handel’s music absolutely requires. In the title role, 22-year-old countertenor Christian Masucci-Facchini is a marvel. Unlike the somewhat hooty and nasal countertenors of the mid-20th century, Masucci-Facchini already has a rich, full voice. He is equally impressive in exuberant arias full of runs such as “Venti, turbini, prestate” as he is in a lovely meditative aria like “Cara sposa, amante cara”. One expects to hear more from him in future.
As Rinaldo’s beloved Almirena, Mélissa Danis has a bright, firm soprano full of many hues. She displays precise runs and solid top notes as well as an expressiveness usually lacking in young singers. It is no wonder that her sensitive account of “Lascia ch'io pianga”, the opera’s most famous number, was greeted with bravos and thunderous applause.
Christopher Dunham, the only performer not associated with the Glenn Gould School or with the Royal Conservatory, makes a huge impression with Argante’s virtuoso entrance aria “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto”, a terrific display of coloratura bass-baritone singing. Dunham’s voice not only has power and richness but a litheness and agility that makes him ideal for roles in baroque and bel canto opera. He also has phenomenal breath control that allows him to sing extensive runs without a break. He has sung Argante professionally before, at Pacific Opera Victoria in 2018, and exudes just that bit more assuredness on stage that sets him apart from the gifted students around him.
As Armida, Katelyn Bird has a powerful coloratura soprano and sings with precision and secure top notes fully at her command. She also has a great sense for comedy and handles Armida’s alternation between hate and love for Rinaldo as if it were a tragedy for Armida, which, of course, only makes the sorceress’s situation more comic. All this she does while pouring Armida’s conflicting emotions into the difficult slow-fast-slow aria “Ah! crudel, Il pianto mio”.
Mezzo-soprano Camila Montefusco is a solid Goffreda and brings a gravitas to to role that helps convey a sobriety and virtue that balance both the romantic excesses of Rinaldo and Almirena and the wicked excesses of Argante and Armida. Montefusco has a lush steady tone strong enough to bring out the beauty in andante passages but agile enough to toss off elaborate roulades.
Since Handel omitted the character of Eustazio in 1731, the figure has hardly appeared in operatic productions since. The Glenn Gould School staging thus will give many audience members their first experience in hearing this role. It is true that Eustazio, now Eustazia, sister to Goffreda and friend of Rinaldo is not strictly necessary to the course of the plot. Yet in cutting the role, Handel also cut the character’s commentary on the action and some of the opera’s loveliest arias. Chelsea Pringle-Duchemin has a delicate, attractive mezzo-soprano heard at its best in such numbers as “Sulla ruota di fortuna” which Diamond has moved from Act 1 to Act 2.
Under conductor Ivars Taurins, the founding director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, the Royal Conservatory Orchestra plays with such unity and purpose it would be hard to guess it was composed of students. Taurins also manages to have this orchestra of modern instruments closely approximate the sound of an orchestra of original instruments – a feat few conductors and few professional orchestras can accomplish. At the curtain call Taurins singles out harpsichordist Christopher Bagan and cellist David Liam Roberts for their continuo work, an honour they richly deserve.
In short, this was one of the most enjoyable productions of a Handel opera that I have ever seen. Imaginative design, direction and vibrant music-making combined to create a delightfully satisfying whole. More than this, the entire opera, unlike so many professional productions, was infused with joy. One aspect of this joy was the ability of the students (in fact, all the students of the RCM) finally to perform for a live audience. Another aspect of this joy was the exhilaration one sensed in all the performers of giving their very best to make a major operatic work successful. This is a production I will always remember fondly.
Photo: Mélissa Danis as Almirena, Elena Howard-Scott as Cupid and Christian Masucci-Facchini as Rinaldo; Christian Masucci-Facchini as Rinaldo and Christopher Dunham as Argante; (front row) Chelsea Pringle-Duchemin as Eustazia, Mélissa Danis as Almirena, Christian Masucci-Facchini as Rinaldo, Elena Howard-Scott as Cupid, Camila Montefusco as Goffreda, Katelyn Bird as Armida and Christopher Dunham as Argante. © 2022 Glenn Gould School.
For tickets visit www.rcmusic.com.