Strange Casting Choices for Prague “Rinaldo”
April 17, 2009 | By Larry L. Lash
VIENNA -- In the new production of Handel’s Crusades epic “Rinaldo” that opened at Prague’s Stavovské divadlo on April 4, French actress-turned-director Louise Moaty resisted the Regietheater temptation to set the opera in the present to remind us that Christians and Muslims have been at each other’s throats for centuries. Instead, Moaty and her team offered a production in the style of the 1711 London premiere, down to banks of flaming candles for footlights.
Such authenticity is lovely in concept. But the truth is, we really don’t know much about the details of early 18th-century staging practices. Even with period instruments, we are, in 2009, still taking educated guesses (albeit extremely informed ones) as to original performance practice in early music.
But staging is a different matter, as is vocal style, particularly the sound of castrati. All we can do is research extant written descriptions and use our imaginations (a few recordings exist of Allessandro Moreschi, the last known living castrato, but were made late in his life when the voice had largely deteriorated).
In this production, the knights Rinaldo and Eustazio, created by two of the leading castrati of their day, Nicolini and Urbani, have been assigned to mezzo-sopranos. The Crusade commander Goffredo was created by a contralto but here is also given to a mezzo. Conductor Václav Luks justifies his casting mezzos rather than countertenors – which, since re-emerging in the mid-20th century are often used in castrati roles -- by positing in his program note that it was not uncommon for male roles to be portrayed by females in the early 18th century, and that countertenors were rarely used in Handel’s time.
However, I can think of at least half a dozen countertenors with more power, presence and refined technique than any of the three women performing en travesti: Mariana Rewerski (a pale-voiced, one-dimensional Rinaldo), Markéta Cukrová (Eustazio), and Stanislava Jirku (a Goffredo lacking the depth of a true contralto).
Fortunately, the other lead roles were not subjected to change of Fach: sopranos Yeree Suh as Almirena and Marie Fajtová as Armida, and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as the Saracen king Argante.
The Christians are drawn under the magical spell of Argante and his mistress, the seductive sorceress Armida. In the course of his trickery, Argante falls for Almirena, beloved of Rinaldo; Rinaldo succumbs to Armida’s wiles; Argante and Armida have bouts of jealousy. After the obligatory battle scene in which the Christians triumph, Argante and Armida are captured, reconciled and pardoned by Goffredo, who further celebrates the union of his daughter Almirena with Rinaldo.
The set for all three acts (more than three-and-a-half hours) consists of dozens of barren tree trunks. Special effects are few and fleeting: Armida enters from the flies in a golden dragon chariot; a flock of puppet birds descends to annoyingly chirp through one of Almirena’s arias; stuff explodes.
Characters almost never face each other: singing is done straight out, and all the characters use the same limited vocabulary of hand gestures. In the production photos, virtually everyone strikes the same pose. To make matters worse, six dancers have been incorporated, beginning with two men bearing flags and prancing throughout the overture. In fact, prancing is the only term I can think of to describe any of the alleged authentic period choreography by Françoise Denieau. Costumes by Alain Blanchot were out of illustrated music history books. One supernumerary looked like a fat man in a dress carrying an oversized cheese slicer.
Even though Suh’s pure crystalline soprano was ravishing, it was the team of Fajtová and Plachetka that towered over the production’s liabilities. Fajtová may not possess a voice to compete with Suh’s for sheer beauty of tone, but with her technique, acting abilities and innate sexiness, her Armida was every inch an enchantress to be obeyed.
Plachetka burst on the scene with the heroic “Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto,” horns and drums ablaze, followed by the tender “Vieni, o cara, a consolarmi,” expressing his great vocal as well as expressive range. [Plachetka was MusicalAmerica.com’s New Musician of the Month, in February.] At 23, his lustrous voice, easily riding Handel’s punishing coloratura, is dark and focused, mature beyond its years. It makes sense that one of Plachetka’s idols, Samuel Ramey, made his Met debut in the very same role.
Luks drew a rather careful reading from his period band Orchestra Collegium 1704, as if treading on eggshells.
In the coming years, the production will visit the opera companies of Caen, Rennes and Luxembourg. Hopefully, Moaty will juice up the action and enable the audience to see it by adding some light to the candles’ soft glow.