Yesterday began for me before dawn when I awoke, went downstairs and watched footage of the night sky above Kyiv lit up with the bursts of artillery fire. Looking out through the kitchen window, I imagined the long dark hill west of Ithaca illuminated by exploding shells.
As I read accounts of the Russian invasion in other papers, the sullen brown landscape of Central New York emerged slowly into the muted light of day.
I was as a reluctant as the morning, but when the time came an hour later, I climbed one of those icy hills to the Cornell campus to teach my morning class, this one devoted to Handel’s first London opera, Rinaldo. Why bother with such escapist nonsense, however beautiful and thrilling?
But maybe the escapism of art was exactly what was needed, even if opera seemed an appalling luxury while Ukrainians were attempting real escape on the jammed highway leading west from their capital.
In the first Handel biography published in 1760, the year after composer’s death, we learn that his father, an eminent surgeon who wanted his son to study the law, believed that “music [had] for its object nothing better than mere pleasure and entertainment.” These pronouncements masked the old man’s deeper concern for his son’s likely decline in social status and earning power should the prodigy go against his will and become a musician. Handel did just that, and died a wealthy man, his music having made him a hero in his adopted land, England.
In the class we’ve been watching the production of Rinaldo of 2011—year of the opera’s tricentenary—from the Glyndebourne opera house on the south coast of England. The story of magic, conquest, love and lust is drawn from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem from the sixteenth century, La Gerusalemme liberata. In order to evade the original scenario of a Christian army invading the Muslim Middle East, the Glyndebourne production re-imagines the title hero as a bullied English schoolboy (sung swashbuckingly by Italian contralto, Sonia Prina) in tie and dark blazer sporting a heraldic crest emblazoned with a red cross. This kid’s supernaturally agile voice remains conveniently unbroken so as to find itself in the range of the part written by Handel for one of the biggest stars of the day, an Italian castrato who went by the stage name of Nicolini.
As chance would have it, the Rinaldo’s cohort in the Glyndebourne presentation is in the midst of a unit on the crusades. Unfairly condemned to detention in one of the classrooms, our daydreaming young hero’s hormones transform the Saracen sorceress Armida into a headmistress, the boy’s surging libido helping her to shed her academic gowns to reveal a dominatrix in PVC corset and matching skirt, form-fitted to her hips. She wields a cane whip rather than a magic wand. Her lover of wandering affections, Argante, King of Jersualem, becomes a school master armored not just in gown and tweed suit but in chainmail coif and gauntlets.
It’s hardly a coincidence that these adaptations play to the proclivities of many of the high-priced Glyndebourne ticketholders, more than a few of whom went to boarding schools and were therefore delighted to see their adolescent fantasies of high heels and riding crops strutted across their most exclusive opera stage to (a)rousing Handelian strains.
At Glyndebourne, Rinaldo’s betrothed, Almirena (Anette Frisch), is a bespectacled, blond plaited, Romance-reading librarian type. This costuming offered up yet another erotic archetype, one to be seen in the calling cards of sex workers plastered inside the red phone booths of Mayfair, London’s most exclusive district. The first act closes with the famous aria Ventini turbini, Rinaldo and his knights charging off to reclaim his betrothed, Almirena, on a vintage bikes à la A Connecticut Yankee in King Aruthr’s Court. The scene is capped off with a high-altitude allusion to the airborne cycle scene from Spielberg’s E.T. With increasing frequency, opera stage directors turn to Hollywood gags to bolster ticket sales.
However alluring this Hogwarts-for-Hedgefunders Rinaldo may have been in 2011, the Cornell students were rightly offended by the staging’s depiction of Armida’s furies as Muslim women introduced in niqabs that are soon stripped off to reveal saucy schoolgirls uniformed in plaid mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, studded belts and gloves—yet more kerosene thrown on the faltering flames of middle-aged male function. These Cornellians agreed that any revival of this production would, at the bare minimum (so to speak), have to cut at least this offense, especially so in the aftermath of the notorious 2018 Daily Telegraph opinion piece by the current British Prime Minister comparing women in burkas to postboxes and bank robbers.
Still attempting to energize myself for yesterday morning’s lecture in the vague hope of returning some small value against the $70K-a-year Cornell price-tag, I tried to address the conundrum of trips to the opera house (real of virtual) made during moments of crisis.
The eighteenth century was a period of nearly uninterrupted armed conflict in which leading musicians were called on to buttress monarchies at war with one another. No one was better equipped for that job than Handel.
At the time of the Rinaldo premiere, England was engaged in the War of the Spanish Succession fought among the European powers across the continent and even in distant colonies in India and North America.
By 1711 the conflict was a decade old. The many politicians and military men who came to the Queen’s Theatre London’s Haymarket to take in this blockbuster entertainment newly imported from Italy were charged with determining the nation’s role in the war. The Paymaster General of the British forces was James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (and soon to be elevated further as the Duke of Chandos). A powerful, art-loving aristocrat, Brydges had embarked on the building a massive country house on the edge of London, the aptly named Cannons, to which Handel himself would repair after the failure of the first London opera company a few years later.
Brydges used his position to enrich himself massively, though he later lost much of his fortune in the South Sea Bubble in 1720 and could not recoup those losses after his takeover of the Royal African Company. Both were slaving ventures.
Politicians, whether like-minded or bitter opponents, met each other in public either in the Houses of Parliament or at the opera house. Whigs were in general more ardent supporters of the opera than Tories, though Brydges was a member of the latter party.
In the War the Tories pushed for a separate peace with Spain and France, and achieved it against the protestations of the Whigs, with the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. That agreement ceded Gibraltar to the British and also lead to the capture, after a long siege, of Barcelona, capital of the breakaway republic of Catalonia. The Catalan separatist movement still alive three hundreds year later.
It was Handel who was called upon to seal the peace with the sublime musical oratory of his Utrecht Te Deum, heard here in a performance by the European Union Baroque Orchestra—a historical irony, some might say, since the work is monument of European disunity.
The majestic benediction of Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum ushered in some of the most vicious decades of what Sven Bickert, in his essential Empire of Cotton, calls War Capitalism.
A few years before the Utrecht Te Deum Handel’s most thrilling movements in Rinaldo called the operatic troops to battle, none of the arias more blood-curdling than Armida’s closer to Act II: Vo’ far guerra, e vincer voglio (I want to wage war, and I want to win). Seizing the moment, Handel took up the standard and pushed himself to the front of the ranks by inserting a dazzling harpsichord solo in which he dueled with the enchantress diva up on stage much to the delight of Lords and Ladies, Whigs and Tories.
(The Glyndebourne version of the aria is not available on YouTube, so we turn instead to the Academy of Ancient Music.)
Failing the Glyndebourne Armida’s battle cry, I offer you the 1711/2011 evening’s most rousing duet, Al trionfo del nostro furore (To the triumph of our fury). It’s given to the bad guys. One suspects Handel’s musical sympathies lay with them.
This opera is not an escape. It’s an incitement.