Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Guildhall School of Music and Drama
9, 11, 13, 15 November 1999
George Frideric Handel Rinaldo
Matthew Marriott (Goffredo), Jenny Carlstedt (Rinaldo), Sophie
Karthäuser (Almirena), Siân Wigley Williams (Eustazio),
Christian Immler (Argante), Sally Matthews (Armida), Henriikka
Gröndahl (a woman), Joanna Burton, Anouschka Lara (sirens), Peter
Christian Curmyn (conductor), Thomas de Mallet Burgess (director)
St John's, Smith Square
12 November 1999
Claudio Monteverdi "17th July 1627" (Madrigals, Il
combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda),
Nigel Robson (tenor),
Simon Hayes (director)
The Italian Madrigal Group
Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata isn't nearly as fruitful a
source for musical texts as Ariosto's Orlando furioso, mainly
because Tasso's piety (or uptightness) takes the fun out of the violence
and diversionary sex. But Tasso's sorceress Armida provides Monteverdi
with the text for an early dramatic madrigal Vattene pur crudele,
and Handel with the plot of his first London opera Rinaldo. And the
episode in which Tancredi fatally wounds the woman warrior Clorinda then,
himself dying, falls in love with her (and baptises her, this being Tasso)
offers a powerful intertwining of sex and death which Monteverdi exploits
in the dramatic narrative Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.
All of which were performed in London within two days this week.
You wait ages for a production of Rinaldo then three come along at
once. Four even. A student double bill earlier this year presented both
versions, 1711 in a "modern" production and 1731 in an "authentic" one. And
Christopher Hogwood brings a concert version with David Daniels and Cecilia
Bartoli among a distinguished cast to the Barbican on 15 and 17 November.
In the meantime, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama presented another
production that could best be described as a dog's breakfast but which
didn't quite defeat the work. (The edition was basically the 1711 version,
with a tenor Goffredo and mezzo Rinaldo, and the third act sinfonia and
hermit scene moved to the beginning of the act.)
The production translated the Saracen-Crusader conflict to a modern
Islam-western one. The fixed set was a wasteland somewhere in the middle
east (shown by Arabic text on a damaged poster), but with partisans in
Balkan dress fighting a western army wearing purple (cardinal red?) berets.
Eustazio was a chaplain who performed Italian-Catholic looking Christian
rituals, and at the start a line of extras who might be refugees passed a
line of monks swinging burning censors. (Incense and stage smoke within
half and hour was a bit much for the lungs.) Armida arrived, not
particularly magically, on a flying motor bike and the sirens lured Rinaldo
into the ruin of a Volkswagen van. Rinaldo and Argante both wore angels'
wings (white and black respectively) at random, or perhaps when they were
formally the heroes of their people. A lighted white box to the left and a
platform to the right of the stage formed sub-stages that didn't seem to
mean much, though the box was useful as Rinaldo's prison.
Christian Curmyn made the orchestra either stampede or wallow, which forced
the singers to go for grandiose effects instead of the internal drama of
their music. Sally Matthews was dramatically powerful as Armida, and
plausibly wired with explosives at the end, and her demonic arias came out
best from this approach. Jenny Carlstedt as Rinaldo had designer stubble
that mysteriously faded during the performance, and plenty of vocal welly.
Sophie Karth&eauml;user as Almirena has an elegant, not totally secure,
small voice and gave a baby-diva performance that was pretty much spot on.
(Carlstedt and Karthäuser were slightly remniscent of Daniels and
Bartoli.) Christian Immler was striking as Argante, and the sirens were as
down-and-dirty as their music.
The whole thing tried far too hard to be interesting and innovative. Purely
in terms of effort and imagination this production, like recent GSMD
student showcases, was better value than almost any other opera in London.
But it didn't come off this time. It's probably good for future
professional singers to learn what it's like to be in a turkey.
The Italian Madrigal Group's Monteverdi concert at St John's on 12 November
was much less ambitious and hit its target perfectly. An imaginative
reconstruction of a concert given by Monteverdi at the English Ambassador's
residence in Venice on 17 July 1627, this hit the spot with a substantially
corporate audience, turning St John's into something like a cold, damp
Glyndebourne for the evening and, incidentally, perhaps recovering some of
the cultural and social atmosphere of the original concert.
The neat programme began with the introduction to Monteverdi's Seventh
Book, a mannered Ovidian militia amoris, followed by an
enjoyable set of madrigals and short instrumental pieces. It ended with the
singers in the Combattimento reading a translation, a performance of
Vattene pur crudele, Armida's lament when abandoned by Rinaldo, and
a searing peformance of the Combattimento itself.
Nigel Robson's narrative (like his performance of the opening madrigal)
delivered the rhetoric of the text and music in detail, but also coherent
and intense emotion. He made the highly-mannered invocation of night near
the start evoke the heroic ideal, a struggle for fame against oblivion and
death, without taking on an individual character himself. This narrator is
something like the war-correspondant evangelist of the Bach passions, but
the text is much more overloaded with directions about what the audience is
supposed to think and feel. Monteverdi's setting keeps things controlled,
but the performer can easily get lost in the detail when he should be
driving forward the action. Robson should do the St John evangelist just
once, somewhere. (His appearance tonight, shaven headed and paunchy in
quasi-ecclesiastical black, suggested that he would be good as Sunday, the
anarchist leader who turns out to be God, in an adaptation of
G.K.Chesterton's The man who was Thursday.)
Margaret Cameron and Thomas Barnard as the combattants had the slightly
easier task of performing dramatic roles, and did so with wonderful
intensity also. Cameron's final words and music, performed from the back of
the stage as Clorinda sees heaven open to her, were heart-stopping.