Handel’s Depths Diminished By Urge To Entertain

Andrey Nemzer, left, sang the title role in the Pacific Opera Victoria production of Handel’s ‘Rinaldo.’
(Photos by David Cooper)

VICTORIA, B.C. – This is one of the smaller urban centers on the West Coast, roughly a tenth the size of nearby Seattle. Nevertheless, Pacific Opera Victoria has delighted its fan base with some unexpected choices of repertoire, including Das Rheingold in 2014 and Jenůfa in 2017.

Jennifer Taverner, center, portrayed a “sizzling” Armida.

An undeniable part of POV’s success story is its home venue: the Royal Theatre dates from 1913 and seats just over 1,400. Given extensive rehabilitation in the 1980s, the Royal is home base for both POV and the Victoria Symphony. Blessed with a traditional plan and good acoustics, it’s big enough for opera but small enough for intimacy.

Handel’s Rinaldo was the final production of this season. Given how tenaciously Victoria clings to its colonial reputation as a bit of Old England, one suspects no sales pitch was needed for a work premiered in London in 1711. But would the popularity of Handel’s oratorios translate into the idea of popular Baroque opera? The POV team evidently didn’t want to take chances with a prissily authentic staging, nor were the services of a specialist Baroque orchestra employed. This was a mainstream Rinaldo, stylish but eclectic.

Though he is perhaps better known for his years of sterling work with Montreal’s McGill Symphony Orchestra, conductor Timothy Vernon founded Pacific Opera Victoria back in 1980. Vernon grew up in Victoria, and his local-boy-made-good reputation has its perks back home. Joining Vernon for Rinaldo was Victoria-based director Glynis Leyshon, herself a veteran of an unprecedented 28 POV productions.

Knowing her resources (and, one strongly suspects, her audience as well), Leyshon came up with a mild Regieoper conceit. “We open in a living room of a London house, in the midst of a bombing raid during WWII,” she wrote in her director’s notes. “To comfort her frightened children, the mother turns on the radio and as the strains of Handel’s overture fill the room, the family bids farewell to the father. Left alone, the children play and slowly drift into the world of Rinaldo as reimagined by their own imaginations.”

Christopher Dunham (Argante), Andrey Nemzer (Rinaldo), and David Trudgen (Goffredo).

This production set out to charm, and in many ways it did. Pam Johnson’s sets had an old-fashioned storybook quality, while her costumes veered more into the DC Comics superhero/supervillain genre. A pragmatic mélange of ideas and styles worked in other ways. Vernon had at his disposal regular symphony players souped up with some experts on harpsichord, lute, and recorder; they produced a solid, often stirring orchestral sound, which may have lacked absolute consistency but was purposeful and effective, barring a few opening night blemishes.

Lead singers were similarly diverse. Soprano Stéphanie Lessard, a graduate of the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, was delightful as Almirena/Mum, and Jennifer Taverner gave Armida her all, turning in a sizzling second act on opening night. Baritone Christopher Dunham, another young artist with Montreal connections, drew the role of the treacherous Argante. All three versatile, well-schooled singers were making their POV debuts.

In contrast to this trio, two countertenors were added to the mix. David Trudgen, known to POV audiences from his 2016 Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, took the supporting role of Goffredo. Andrey Nemzer essayed the demanding title role with great confidence; more intense than many countertenors, Nemzer’s swaggering reading of his part set the vocal standard for the entertainment.

The show is, for a three-hour Baroque opera, well paced; Vernon favored brisk, virile tempi. Leyshon has thought seriously about one of the traditional bugbears of Baroque opera, the da capo aria; she almost always chooses to keep the action on the boil with new business even while her characters are musically backtracking. All well and good from the sense of theatrical arc, but maybe a bit too fussy to allow singers to take chances with ornamentation and create those wonderful opportunities for other musical risk-takings that a more static staging might have encouraged.

David Trudgen (Goffredo) ami Stéphanie Lessard (Almirena).

While the opening night crowd seemed well pleased with the production, sober reflection produces a few reservations. While we know, or rather believe, that opera in Handel’s era was about the tunes, the singing, and the stagecraft, Handel’s genius surely lies in the expression of a wide range of emotional states. If we know the whole thing is storybook make-believe (no one will really be killed in battle, the dragon is cute rather than fearsome, and so on), does this square with the intense nature of Handel’s music? Is the greatness of his achievement trivialized?

It was fun to see the second-act scene between Rinaldo and Arminda played for comedy – fairly low comedy at that – but did the impulse to entertain at all costs subvert the complexity of the music? Similarly, the powerful expressiveness of the score’s greatest jewel, “Lascia ch’io pianga,” loses poignancy when the staging tells us everything’s going to be fine, just you wait.

Certainly this was a way to do Handel for the short attention spans and limited connoisseurship of contemporary audiences. But, just perhaps, Handel has more to offer in depth and subtlety.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and teaches at the University of British Columbia.