I passed the train station on the way to the Pittsburgh Opera last night. I've always had a fondness for trains that began with some absolutely fantastic journeys on Chinese trains, but my experiences on American trains have been slightly lacking. I would recommend taking a train from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia at least once, since the scenery while traveling through the Appalachian mountains is so beautiful.
As for the opera, I saw Handel's Rinaldo. For those of you not in the know, Rinaldo tells the tale of a heroic crusader who has sworn to retake Jerusalem from the evil clutches of the Saracens who rule over the city with their godless magics. He pursues this quest with no small amount of encouragement from his liege lord Goffredo and Goffredo's daughter, Almirena. Of course, Almirena and Rinaldo are madly in love, but cannot consummate until Rinaldo retakes Jerusalem. Something must have gotten lost in translation, because in most scenes Almirena comes off as more bloodthirsty than anything. It doesn't help that there was absolutely no chemistry between the actresses who played Rinaldo and Almirena.
The proud-yet-cowardly Saracen King Argante fears for his anticipated ousting and calls for a three-day truce, which he uses to summon his sorcerer-queen Armida who kidnaps the fair Almirena using her close connection to the powers of Hell.
In case you hadn't realized, this opera has some issues that are deeply, deeply. rooted in its Islamophobic origins. Handel debuted this opera three hundred years ago to the day (February 4, 1711) and had probably never met a Muslim in his life. I had an opportunity to speak with the director and the actor who played Argante beforehand. They told me they had hoped to avoid some of the opera's problematic undertones by removing most references to religion or, when necessary, replacing Christian allusions with ones to Roman myth.
For the most part, it works. The opera was translated in such a way that people who didn't know the history could enjoy what transpired as simply a tale of good vs. evil and virtue vs. malice.
But it doesn't change the fact that Argante, now just a generic "bad guy" wears a turban or that the heroic Goffredo and Rinaldo wear large red crosses. Rather than contesting the play's values system, the production naturalized them through its costumes and art direction.
A contemporary German production of Rinaldo set the opera in modern-day Iraq. I would have like to have seen that. Such a production would be better suited to handle the reality that the historical "Argante," Iftikhar ad-Daula expelled all Christians from Jerusalem when the crusader army approached. He could have used them as hostages or used their slaughtered bodies as ammunition for his siege weapons. In the face of this humanity, ad-Daula was forced to convert to Christianity as a condition of surrender and then had to watch as the victorious Crusaders went on a murderspree through Jerusalem.
Fulcher of Chartres relates,
"Many fled to the roof of the temple of Solomon, and were shot with arrows, so that they fell to the ground dead. In this temple almost ten thousand were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared."
And yet, without irony, the cast of Rinaldo sings in unison to close out the opera: "Virtue alone triumphs over ignorance and malice."