Opera, for all its wonders, is an art form with many barriers to entry. Ticket prices can be ruinously expensive, and those intrepid viewers who do attend often encounter large, impersonal performance spaces, tangled or bewildering plots, and challenging runtimes of three hours or more. The Boston Opera Collaborative’s version of George Frideric Handel’s “Rinaldo,” which ran at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology March 26-29, succeeded superbly in removing these impediments. The final result was a production that was compelling, well-crafted, and accessible to all.
“Rinaldo,” which was first performed in 1711, tells the story of Almirena (Laura DellaFera) and Rinaldo (Sophie Michaux), two lovers swept up in the turmoil of the Crusades. The original libretto is incredibly convoluted; it involves, in no particular order, magic wands, mermaids, a disappearing palace, several transfigurations, multiple conversions to Christianity, and a Saracen army. In this production, stage directors Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Greg Smucker and music director Michael Sakir cut down the original three-hour, three-act opera to a single 90-minute act. The resulting work moved seamlessly through a cleaner, more emotionally appealing story in which the political and religious connotations attendant to the Crusades were largely removed, allowing the characters’ relationships and individual struggles to take front stage. As the directors explained in the program, “For us, [Rinaldo] isn’t a piece about one enemy annihilating each other; it is about facing the enemy, looking beyond our assumptions[,] and recognizing our common humanity.” Considering that the original opera told the story of a Christian army laying waste to Jerusalem and forcibly converting its inhabitants, this new message came through impressively clearly.
The directors were aided in their efforts to create a more nuanced “Rinaldo” by the strong acting of the singers, particularly Sophie Michaux in the role of the title character. As in many Handel operas, the lead male part was written for a castrato and is now performed by a countertenor, contralto, or mezzo-soprano. Michaux elevated her performance through abundant charm and emotional vitality, moving effortlessly between the levity of a mischievous, infatuated boy and the gravity of a remorseful warrior forced to question the morality of his deeds. Although she lacked the vocal depth of some of the other singers—her performance had range and power, but she occasionally sounded strained for breath—she provided several of the opera’s most moving moments. After the abduction of Almirena, Rinaldo’s betrothed, the bereaved knight mourns his loss; Michaux’s rendition of “Cara sposa, amante cara” in this scene was achingly poignant. Shoulders rounded in pain, Michaux slowly set aside her armor and weapons, laying herself bare both physically and emotionally.
As Rinaldo’s counterpart, Almirena, Laura DellaFera also contributed to the opera’s newfound subtlety of theme. Her performance was playful yet assertive, adding dimensionality to what is ordinarily a passive character. Clad in the same armor as the male characters, DellaFera’s Almirena was confident, courageous, and capable. From the start, DellaFera took control of the stage every time she sang; her vocals were rich and precise, even when covering difficult scales and trills. “Combatti da forte,” in which Almirena exhorts a reluctant Rinaldo to do his best in battle, was one of her stronger moments, as the aria allowed DellaFera to exhibit both her commanding upper register and her understanding of comedic body language and timing. However, her performance of “Lascia ch’io pianga,” easily “Rinaldo’s” most well-known aria, was obstructed by over-embellishment. The aria, in which Almirena laments her captivity, was still affecting, but much of the music’s elegant simplicity was lost through near-constant variations on its original structure.
The role of the sorceress queen Armida, Rinaldo and Almirena’s foe, was sung with admirable panache by Jessica Jacobs. Jacobs drew eyes and ears with her strong stage presence and cutting, clear voice, but her performance lacked the emotional appeal of Michaux’s or DellaFera’s. As Armida’s consort Argante, Luke Scott delivered a similarly solid performance, yet one that also lacked a certain measure of transcendence. Scott’s most memorable moment was his rendering of “Vieni o cara, a consolarmi,” during which the power and resonance of his baritone became beautifully apparent. Garry McLinn, who played Goffredo, Almirena’s father and Rinaldo’s commander, did well in his few solos, yet seemed strangely stiff in his onstage movements and expressions. The ten-person cast was completed by Argante’s herald (Patrick McGill) and Armida’s four attendants, the Furies, from which Beibei Guan and Hailey Fuqua stood out in the sinuous aria “Il vostro maggio.”
The lush score was brought vibrantly to life by the New Vintage Baroque ensemble, whose accompaniment did justice to the delicately balanced harmonic progressions of Handel’s music. Arrayed on the theater’s stage, the group was often figuratively and literally in the spotlight, and they did not disappoint; their performance was so enjoyable that it could have been a stand-alone concert. Since the ensemble occupied the stage, all the action of the opera took place in the center of the floor, around three sides of which the audience was seated. The cast was thus able to interact with the audience in an incredibly personal and intimate way, as there was virtually no separation between audience and set. This minimalist ethos extended to the set design, which consisted of a variety of tall coat-racks that were variously used as trees, spears, tridents, walls, and other objects. The informality of the staging and set design was compelling, creating a spirit of community between the cast and audience. However, the costumes struck a discordant note; garish Halloween-style foam breastplates and polyester capes, they failed to mirror the creative, charming spirit present in other aspects of the production.
It was clear throughout that this “Rinaldo” was put on by a group of people who simply love opera and want to share that love with others. Occasional minor weaknesses were present, but they could not hold back the fundamental joy and passion at the heart of the show. In staging this production, the Boston Opera Collaborative has both illuminated a great work from the past and discovered a convincing path for the future.
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