I've sounded off before about how Shakespeare directors feel the need to set their productions in some historical period (other than Shakespeare’s and any that have already been done). It gets in the way of the text unnecessarily; but faced with the question of what a production would be like that doesn’t get in the way I gave up and voted for semi-staged readings.
But perhaps I should persist and go to more productions; perhaps some do work. I'm wondering that because Handel’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne last year (BBC4 last Friday night, available for a week here) was a really messed up production that worked; I thought it was fabulous. I've never, of course, seen Rinaldo done straight, or even listened to it on CD.
Instead of being set in the Crusades, the action took place in a traditional school with uniform, canes, gowns and mortar boards. The main chap, Rinaldo, was a schoolboy/Crusader and was played by a woman; the whole of the Crusades stuff was this kid’s fantasy, a way of getting revenge on his horrible bullying classmates and the hateful teachers. The schoolgirls (pure St Trinian’s) doubled as Furies; the other school boys were play up, play up and play the game good chaps who made good English Crusaders.
Visually it was a treat with special effects, multiple revealings of sets, breathtaking choreography and enlivening lighting; the singing of course was superb. Above all it was hilarious, yet this wasn’t incompatible with the thing being moving and dramatically gripping. The characters were real and distinctive; I really liked Rinaldo and his speccy girlfriend and revelled in the evilness of the villains, male and female. The bondage and SM overtones added spice.
Perhaps the difference from Shakespeare is that Handel’s libretto couldn’t be taken seriously on its own merits; it was simply the vehicle for the music, which in the manner of the operas of the time used them, at least after the first occurrence of each chunk, less for their meaning and contribution to the story than as repeatable matter on which musical variations and developments could be constructed and subtle developments and vagaries of a character’s personality and feeling played out by changes in the singing and the repertoire of action and bodily and facial expression. So what happens is highly formal ritual (arias, repetitions) and constant development with nothing the same twice.
With Shakespeare, while there’s certainly ritual and formality -- patterns as unrealistic as those of opera, like the extended exchanges in As You Like It that I wrote about earlier and a few times shortly afterwards -- what’s repeated and patterned is mainly at a more general or abstract level and the words themselves are unique to each successive speech -- and thus carry much more of the meaning that’s essential to experiencing the play.
Perhaps the reason for the difference in my responses (Rinaldo as against many Shakespeare productions) is simply that in the opera the director’s superimposed setting was carried by the cast and the set stylishly and cleverly whereas Shakespeare is so often clunky, with lots of superfluous action that isn’t wonderful to watch but just irritating. Bloody actors. I assume Glyndebourne used dancers.