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Double Tasso

Guildhall School of Music and Drama
11/09/1999 -  

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 Grant (hermit)
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.

H.E. Elsom



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