Composer: Georg Friedrich Handel
Conductor: Valclav Luks
Director: Louise Moaty
Rinaldo: Mariana Rewerski
Almirena: Katerina Knezikova
Argante: Adam Plachetka
Armida: Marie Fajtova
After the lovely little concert the day before, it was time to focus on one of my main reasons to come to Prague in the first place: a visit to the historical Estates Theater, where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and which has since become an obligatory stop on every music lover's European tour. Baroque operas have never my cup of tea with their static postures, affected gestures, women in trousers and, worst of all, endless repetitions, but, hey, Mozart rules. After a quick homework, I figured that at least the story line revolving around the fight between the Crusaders and the Sacasens for Jerusalem, with of course some relationship issues and a few magical tricks thrown in for good measure, wouldn't be hard to follow, if not overly exciting.
After the gasp-inducing extravagance of Budapest and the underwhelming minimalism of Vienna, the Estates Theater auditorium was nicely dominated by a soothing blue punctuated by white putti and gilded ornaments. This is only one of three opera venues in the Czech capital, but as far as I was concerned, it was of course the most special one, and stepping into it was already a dream come true regardless of the actual performance.
And the performance in fact was not half-bad after all, just twice as long as it should have been, but we'll blame the score for that. All what can make a baroque opera unappealing was there, and we even go a couple of unnecessary ballet routines. The mezzo sopranos adequately filled their male roles, even if I can't help but find there is something inherently wrong in having women play men's roles as they tend to make them look and sound, well, effeminate. Giving these parts to counter-tenors, as it is frequently done nowadays, would have been a smart move, but that didn't happen.
On the other hand, the two female parts were powerfully sung, with a special nod to Marie Fajtova, who was a most beguiling enchantress. Her first appearance descending from the sky on her golden dragon-drawn carriage was as mesmerizing as her alluring voice and brought a welcome splash of earthy sexiness to the agonizingly refined on-going proceedings. In sharp contrast to Almirena's unbounded fierceness, her rival Armida was the perfect picture of sweetness and virtue. Argante was a welcome bass among all the higher notes and a well-suited counterpart to his scheming mistress.
The set was simply but efficiently designed, and the warm candle-light glow in which it would bathe all evening created some really arresting tableaux such as the golden birds flying down to the sound of the flute or an ocean conjured up by undulating pieces of blue fabric. The tall tree trunks that were occasionally moved around discreetly served their purposes and the nicely detailed costumes added to the attractive visual effects.
But let's face it, three and a half hours to come to the conclusion that "vile envy is defeated only by virtuous emotions" is way too long, especially when the same sentence is sung ad infinitum. The Spanish-speaking couple sitting next to me smartly left during the second intermission, along with quite a few others, and I ended up envying them (Speaking of envy...). The conductor Valclav Luks kept the capable orchestra going at a good pace, but couldn't accomplish any miracle in terms of duration. Never mind. It was still a total thrill to finally be in a venue forever associated with Mozart and his operatic masterpiece, and one more name to cross off my list of places to see before I die.