The Baroque composer and impresario Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) was a big fan of special effects, so I’m sure he would have liked the blue-screen production of his opera Rinaldo at the Chemnitz opera house.
Blue-screen is a technology that was widely used for film-making in the 1980s, for instance in the Star Wars films. Advances in computer technology have since made blue-screen obsolete for the film studios, but today it is routinely used in television for news and weather broadcasts, and this is the second time I have seen it in an opera production. (The first time was 2015 in Paris, as described in my post Jacques Offenbach at the Châtelet.)
For Händel’s Rinaldo in Chemnitz, the stage was split horizontally. The top half was a screen with a video projection in which the singers seemed to be doing marvelous and impossible things, and the bottom half was where the singers were actually performing in front of a blue background that was visible to the audience but invisible to the three video cameras mounted at the front of the stage.
For instance, there was a scene in which Argante, the King of Jerusalem, was shown in the top half riding around at breakneck speed on a flying carpet while singing his big aria, while his coattails waved behind him in the wind. In the bottom half of the stage, we could see that actually he was singing while standing on a small pedestal in front of the blue background. Behind him were two dancers dressed from head to foot in blue (which made them invisible to the video camera) tugging on his coattails with blue strings to create the illusion that they were flying in the wind.
In another scene, the three ladies playing the Sirens were supposed to be singing while half submerged in the ocean. In the bottom half of the stage, we could see that actually they were wearing long blue skirts that matched the color of the background, so in the video they were only visible from the waist up.
In any production of Rinaldo, one of the things to watch for is how they stage the most famous aria, Almirena’s Lascia ch’io pianga (Let me cry).
In Frankfurt, Karen Vuong sings it while just sitting quietly downstage, as a respite between two strenuous dance scenes. In Berlin, Miah Persson as Almirena has been transformed into a mermaid by an evil magician, so she slithers out from under the curtain and sings the aria while sitting on the edge of the stage with her fishtail dangling into the orchestra pit.
In Chemnitz, Almirena in the video seems to be hanging upside down from a rope around her feet while bound and blindfolded, with her long hair hanging down from her head. In fact, as the audience can see in the bottom half, she is singing while standing comfortably on the pedestal in front the blue background. The ropes are merely patterns printed onto her dress, and her long hair is a hat that stands up on top of her head. (They’ve simply flipped the video so she appears to be hanging upside down, and added some more ropes in the background picture.)
Here’s the sorceress Armida, who seduces Rinaldo for the purpose of keeping him off the battlefield:
Like many other Baroque operas, Rinaldo is based on a story from Torquato Tasso’s sprawling epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), which is set in the First Crusade of the early Middle Ages with glorious Christian knights battling infidels and sorceresses in faraway countries. The Chemnitz program booklet points out, however, that both Händel and his librettist Aaron Hill were cosmopolitan, liberal individuals who just wanted to tell an exciting story and were not the slightest bit interested in fomenting any religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims.
When the singers took their bows at the end of Rinaldo, we could still see them live at the bottom half of the stage and in the video projection at the top half, in front of the slogan “Baroque & Roll”.
Chemnitz, by the way, was my fifty-eighth German opera house, out of the sixty I have been to so far.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.
See also: Händel as an opera composer.