Baroque fix: a little operatic silliness from the past

Handel's 'Rinaldo' sings past the centuries at Portland Opera

Caitlin Mathes as Rinaldo, Sharin Apostolou as Almirena. Photo: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

Caitlin Mathes as Rinaldo, Sharin Apostolou as Almirena. Photo: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

A lot of silly stuff happens in George Frideric Handel’s 1711 opera “Rinaldo,” and it does not exactly happen at the speed of light. The past, it appears, is an ambling and contradictory country. “Winds, whirlwinds, lend your wings to my feet!” the title hero sings, over and over, toward the end of a first act that sometimes feels as long as the entire Baroque era.

Yet Rinaldo does not wing away. He stands and delivers, and delivers, and delivers, after the dastardly sorceress Armida has abducted his lady-love Almirena from beneath his placid nose and hustled her away. Rinaldo stands and delivers for so long that Armida could have booked a flight to Budapest and holed up in a Hungarian hideout three days’ hike into the hills without ever having to resort to sorcery. Then he wanders off on a long journey to see ANOTHER sorcerer, this one of the Christian persuasion, to ask what he ought to do.

But then, parse most operas for plausibility and you’re not likely to come up with a persuasively logical resolution. Logic isn’t why we go to the opera, and the story of this particular opera, which is set against the “liberation” of Jerusalem via the First Crusade and is littered with the sort of cultural and religious assumptions that don’t smell very good from a few centuries’ distance, makes no case for lasting dramatic tension.

Philip Mercier, portrait of Handel, date unknown, Handel House Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Philip Mercier, portrait of Handel, date unknown, Handel House Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

And yet I walked out of Friday night’s opening performance of Portland Opera’s “Rinaldo” glad that I had been there, dramatic inconsistencies and all. The music was well worth it, and the play itself (libretto by Giacomo Rossi and Aaron Hill, after Torquato Tasso’s epic poem “Gerusalemme liberata”) offers a tantalizing glimpse into the Baroque aesthetic and mind. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to see Baroque operas, although “Rinaldo” is one of Handel’s most frequently produced, and in a sense it provides as much of a break from the Romantic operatic norm as contemporary operas do. You could even argue that Baroque composers and performers shared a passion for elaboration and ornamentation with some of the great innovators of 20th century jazz.

Portland Opera’s “Rinaldo” has a lot of good things going for it. To begin, it’s being performed not in the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, the company’s usual home, but in the 880-seat Newmark Theatre, a much more congenial space for the softer and more intimate sounds of this opera’s period. Second, the pit band is the wonderful Portland Baroque Orchestra, 22 pieces strong, which under Gary Thor Wedow’s energetic and specific direction immediately establishes that alluring plucked and hollowed Baroque sound that urges listeners to perk up their ears and pay attention. Third, it’s a showcase for women in “pants” roles, singing male characters originally performed by castrati. Fourth, it’s also a showcase for Portland Opera’s thriving resident-artist program for young professional singers: all seven singers are either current or former resident artists. Fifth – hey. It’s Handel. The music’s good.

Singing in the Baroque style is a little like driving a sports car on a narrow mountain road: it requires constant shifting and precision control. It isn’t easy to master. Some singers devote their careers to it. If tight corners sometimes get swept around a little loosely here, the overall effect is genuinely pleasurable. The seven singers perform well together, with nicely matched voices and intonations, and it’s the music that finally carries the evening. Mezzo soprano Caitlin Mathes is the supposedly heroic Rinaldo, a brick of a fellow, who is betrothed to Almirena (the comically astute soprano Sharin Apostolou), who happens to be the daughter of Rinaldo’s boss, the Christian-army captain Goffredo (tenor Matthew Grills). Mezzo Hannah Penn is Eustazio, Goffredo’s brother and confidante; bass Nicholas Nelson is an adept sorcerer; and baritone Andre Chiang is a commanding Argante, the king of Jerusalem, who is Goffredo’s enemy and Armida’s lover but also falls hard for the supposedly chaste Almirena. As is so often the case, the villain gets the juiciest parts, and soprano Lindsay Ohse makes the most of it as the scheming sorceress Armida, blowing into the opera like a well-tempered hurricane. The squall is welcome and invigorating: good thing she and Argante are spared at the end, even if they have to convert to Christianity so they can live happily ever after.

The look and action of the production are both intriguing and puzzling. As James McQuillen writes in his perceptive review for The Oregonian, Chas Rader-Shieber’s stage direction appears to “waver between seriousness and broad comedy before decisively opting for the latter.” It’s as if, at some point, he shrugs his shoulders and tells himself the thing doesn’t make any sense, anyway, so why not just pull out the stops and have some fun? Through much of the long first act he keeps the movement parallel and constrained, like the careful steps of a minuet, as if he were nodding to the earlier masques and semi-operas of Purcell and other composers for the English stage.  Throughout the show the performers do a lot of pointing toward the sky, for reasons that continue to elude me. Gradually things loosen up and get a little frisky:  the corset unsnaps.

Andre Chiang as Argante. Photo: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

Andre Chiang as Argante. Photo: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

Jacob A. Climer has designed both set and costumes, which are bright and clever and quizzical. The set has swinging side doors and a hanging curtain that tilts or straightens according to the balances of the plot, and it neatly allows for multiple locations and even such frivolities as a toy sailing-ship that glides above a wall. The playfulness extends to the costumes, too, which range from bejeweled turbans and pasha pants to Disney-princess dresses. In one scene that involves old-fashioned suitcases, the singers look like hotel bellhops in their tailor-trimmed short jackets. So far, so fun.

But there are distractions – electrical plug-in lamps where a battery-operated job could have kept the period mood going – and none bigger than the odd appearance throughout the play of a grimy plumbed sink, which against its tiled background makes it seem as if the action’s taking place in a subway bathroom. I confess the sink distracted me from beginning to end, because I immediately thought of Chekhov’s gun – the great playwright’s dictum that if a rifle is mounted on the wall in the first act, it had better be fired before the end of the third – and wondered how in the devil the sink was going to be worked into the plot. This is “Rinaldo,” not “Macbeth”: no need for the lady of the house to try to wash the blood off her hands. The sink’s a visual MacGuffin. It has no bearing on the plot. There it sits, throughout the opera, purposeless except to irritate and perplex audience members waiting for its purpose to be revealed. Its reason for being is out there in the ether somewhere, possibly gossiping with Godot.

Or maybe it’s just another part of the joke. Because in the end, this “Rinaldo” invites us to poke some affectionate fun at its own implausibilities and exaggerations. And, of course, to enjoy some pretty fine music. Missions accomplished.


“Rinaldo” has remaining performances on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, March 19, 21, and 23 at the Newmark Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Portland. Ticket information is here.




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