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Here be Dragons: Glynis Leyshon on Directing Rinaldo: How does a director do justice to the extraordinary music of Rinaldo? Glynis Leyshon discusses the importance of remaining true to the opera's fantastical spirit while placing it 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.
Sparrows and Spectacle: The Spectator, the famous journal launched in 1711, just as Rinaldo premièred, is rife with trenchant and amusing commentary on the over-the-top spectacle of Handel's first London opera. The writers, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, were definitely not fans of Italian opera on an English stage.
Cast and Creative Team: Meet the artists behind this production of Rinaldo.
Events Calendar: What's on at POV – opera performances, free public previews, activities for schools and artists.
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 a vaguely 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 as The Magic Flute, it 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 find a way 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 overture begins, we will find ourselves in the midst of a family in a time of war; the father going away, the mother holding things down at home, both caught in their separate fates, captive to forces they cannot control; and the children, watching it all, trying to come to terms with an enigmatic and terrifying world.
As the children listen to the radio, the opera will come to life through their imaginations. The toys they play with – a boat, a dragon – will 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.
For Glynis, this is the key musical challenge in directing a Baroque opera: I adore trios, quartets, choruses – the display of many voices. With Rinaldo, we are going back into the tradition of the individual singer, with a few duets, and many arias.
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?
On March 1, 1711, Just days after Rinaldo first hit the stage, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele launched The Spectator, a daily journal whose stated aim was to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality.
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 POV'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.
One of the burning questions for any production of Rinaldo is how many countertenors there will be. The answers can range from none (when mezzo-sopranos poach the roles of Goffredo and Rinaldo) to four (the aforesaid, plus Goffredo's brother Eustazio (cut from Handel's revisions of the opera, and from our production) and the Magician (assigned to a baritone in our production, a bass in Handel's 1731 revival).
POV's production features two countertenors, who perform the heroic roles of Rinaldo and Goffredo.
Our Rinaldo, Andrey Nemzer, has sung just about every voice type going, from boy soprano to basso profondo. He made his professional debut as a spinto tenor, singing Alwa in the Russian première of Lulu – then accidentally discovered he had a pretty good countertenor voice. He has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh Summerfest, Opera San Antonio, and with many Russian instrumental and vocal ensembles. This is his début as Rinaldo.
In the role of Goffredo is Canadian countertenor David Trudgen, who was an imposing Oberon in POV's 2016 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, his voice singled out by critics as beautiful, other-worldly, unearthly, lush. The Chicago Tribune called him the next generation's answer to David Daniels for his appearance as Medoro in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Handel's Orlando.
As Almirena, Stéphanie Lessard gets to sing one of the most gorgeous arias in this or any other opera (Lascia Ch'io Pianga / Let me weep). The prize-winning soprano has been praised for her charisma and control and her powerful, rich voice.
Critic Jonathan Sutherland has said that the stroppy sorceress Armida is the most fun role in Rinaldo ... a combination of the Queen of the Night and Cruella de Vil. Our Armida is Jennifer Taverner, who has been called ravishing, resplendent and captivating.
Christopher Dunham's beautiful, powerful baritone voice will provide most of the rare low notes in this production as he takes on the role of Argante. He has performed with Opéra de Montréal, Atlanta Opera, and with Jeunesses Musicales Canada.
Not that anyone has sat down to count, but Bruce Kelly is a contender for the record for the number of roles he has played at POV. As a baritone, he frequently snags the parts of imposing wise guys (Sharpless, Germont, the High Priest in The Magic Flute). In this production he's the all-wise Magician, complete with magic wand.
Glynis Leyshon definitely holds the record for most directorial gigs with POV. This is number 29 and her first baroque opera. Glynis is thrilled to be collaborating once again with Designer Pam Johnson who worked with her on the snow, shadow, and sparkle of Vanessa (2011), as well as on theatre and opera projects over many years and who brings a gift for playing with the fantastical setting of this opera.
Lighting designer Eric Champoux debuted with POV as lighting designer for The Magic Flute. An artist/painter and graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, he has designed the lighting for some 100 productions in Quebec and Europe. Projection Designer Corwin Ferguson, who will bring much of the fantasy to life, has also designed for such companies as Vancouver Opera, Calgary Opera, and Alberta Theatre Projects.
Jacques Lemay, a go-to choreographer for POV, has worked on many of our productions, most recently Rattenbury and The Magic Flute.
Conducting the Victoria Symphony is POV Artistic Director Timothy Vernon, who has long been eager to program RInaldo, POV's fourth venture into the beguiling world of Baroque opera.