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Handel with care: Zurich `Rinaldo' set in airport

Friday, June 20, 2008

ZURICH, Switzerland —  The new jet-set production of Handel's "Rinaldo" at the Zurich Opera left a large segment of the audience pretty much dumbfounded.

Director Jens-Daniel Herzog shifted the action from Jerusalem around the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099) to an airport luxury lounge and conference center, more than a wee bit later than the First Crusade. Rinaldo, the Christian warrior, wears a double-breasted navy blazer, needs a drink and gets frustrated when an elevator door closes on him.

Characters go up and down on-stage escalators, and the set spins to show various areas of the lounge and terminal. There is a dissection of a small, white furry animal, a large snake, some allusions to Bond girls and character transformations. The Christians pull guns on the Muslims at a signing ceremony.

It was outrageous _ and entertaining. It had little to do with the opera that premiered in London in 1711.

This isn't the first time an opera has been time-shifted with an aeronautic theme. Peter Sellars' 1988 staging of Wagner's "Tannhaeuser" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was moved from 13th-century Thuringia to an airport.

Herzog's staging, based on a concept from Claus Guth, opened June 15. Based on Wednesday's second performance, it's not an easy night for the audience, which was either so mesmerized or stupefied that a large segment was unsure whether to applaud when scenes ended.

The glue that held the night together was conductor William Christie, who drew a sublime performance from the Orchestra La Scintilla of the Zurich Opera.

At the beginning, the on-stage action is confusing, given its disconnect from Giacomo Rossi's libretto.

Goffredo, the Christian captain, is in a gray, chalk-striped suit. The "army" is six businessmen and two businesswomen who pirouette with their attache cases. Eustazio, Goffredo's brother, is a Johnny Depp look-alike wearing a morning coat and sunglasses.

Argante, the Saracen king, is in a suit and tan kufi, a crocheted prayer cap. Armida, the Queen of Damascus and a sorceress, prefers red slip dresses and red patent leather shoes (which she uses to kick Argante in a delicate area) but later transforms herself into Almirena, Goffredo's daughter, who goes for white dresses and a Grace Kelly head scarf. Mago, the Christian magician, appears to be a homeless person hanging around the airport with a white light saber.

In the intimate Opernhaus Zurich, which seats about 1,100, singers could be heard easily with no need to bellow.

Soprano Malin Hartelius gave an over-the-top performance as Armida, who with fiendish facial expressions gets to have the most fun. Soprano Ann Helen Moen was a sweet-voiced Almirena and was moving in the opera's most-famous aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga."

Mezzo-soprano Juliette Galstian, singing the title role for the first time during this run, had a lot to compete with in the busy staging but exhibited a clarion voice and winning ability to draw empathy. Soprano Liliana Nikiteanu was slimy as Goffredo, and contralto Katharina Peetz looked like a Tim Burton creation as Eustazio. Bass-baritone Ruben Drole was menacing as Argante.

Christian Schmidt's vividly modern sets and costumes, and Ramses Sigl's constantly whirling choreography left the greatest impact. Some might consider it Eurotrash, others great fun. All will find it memorable.


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(This version CORRECTS that Herzog's staging opened June 15, sted June 14.)

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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