RINALDO (The English Concert/ Harry Bicket), Barbican Centre, 13th March 2018
Probably, there is no need to introduce Handel’s ‘Rinaldo’ to opera and music lovers, so beloved this piece by audiences all over the world. It is no wonder that is was revived by Handel three times after its premiere in 1711, and with 53 performances was his most-performed opera in his lifetime. The recent ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ exbition in V&A museum featured ‘Rinaldo’ as representation of London opera scene of the 18th century. It was the first Italian-language opera written expressedly for London stage (was premiered at Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket) and involved extravagant and inventive machinery, including the ship rolling on waves, mermaids, and live birds that tended not to choose their direction of flight carefully. A fragment of machinery used in that ‘Rinaldo’ was modelled in V&A and still looks very impressive – one could look at rolling waves and the ship weaving its way through them forever. It has become even more well-known with mass audiences after the 1994 film ‘Farinelli’ directed by Gérard Corbieau and featuring, among other things, the feud mixed with mutual respect between Carlo Broschi and Handel, with the former stealing the score of ‘Rinaldo’ from the composer with the aim of performing it in his theatre. That’s where many people heard recorded arias from Rinaldo (including the magnificent lament of ‘Cara sposa’) that were created by mixing the voices of soprano Ewa Malas-Godlewska and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin.
Sasha Cooke, Joélle Harvey and Iyestyn Davies. Credits: Robert Workman
The English concert presented a non-staged, concert version of the opera, with Harry Bicket conducting (while also playing the harpsichord) the chamber ochestra of musicians playing the period instruments, including the recorder (Tabea Debus) and theorbo (William Carter). The most exquisite soloists were united for this evening, and that, together with the exquisite and detailed performance from the English Concert musicians, made an evening an absolute joy of Handel celebration. The plot of ‘Rinaldo’ is loosely based on ‘Gerusalemme liberata’ by Torquato Tasso, with Rinaldo being the Christian knight liberating the Jerusalem, and Armida a magician who snaps Rinaldo’s beloved Armirena as her hostage. The sometimes naïve and fairy-tale like movements of the plot partly resemble Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (two men in love with one woman, one not very naturally, and one woman furious of this situation) and Armida’s figure reminds one of Circe (sirens are also present) from ‘The Odyssey’. The scenario by Aaron Hill was quickly put to verse by Giacomo Rossi and, in parallel, was swiftly put to music by Handel, who sometimes adapted arias from his previous operas for the purpose, with the final result not loosing a single part of the outstanding beauty of some of its arias in the process. The singers were left without the support of luxurious visual imagery that is pre-supposed by libretto, but that fact allowed them to concentrate on delivering the emotions of their characters vividly, masterfully and with obvious joy and delight in doing so.
Credits: Robert Workman
The singers were quite different in their technique and approach to Handel’s arias, but is is remarkable how each soloists had an opportunity to shine in his delivery of music and in his or her emotional treatment of the piece and of his or her role. Iestyn Davies, a graduate of Cambridge with a vast range of Handel’s roles performed (including a theatre play ‘Farinelli and the King’) sang the title role. Davies’s approach to Handel’s arias is very specific: articulate and precise in terms of sound delivery, but sometimes letting the phrasing be cut into shorter pieces that does not allow the listener to be swept away by emotions. On the contrary, Davies’ Rinaldo is a nervous, energetic type, with his ‘Cara sposa’ being a vigorous demand rather than a poetical lament, and his strongest moments being during the arias with swifter tempi like ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ or the final, triumphant one ‘Or la tromba in suon festante’. Sometimes you think he cuts his phrases too much, not allowing you to delve into Handel, but then his earnest and precise style seduces you and you accept his Rinaldo the way Davies portrays him. He was also excellent (and acting accordingly) in his duets with Armirena and Armida, half-playfully showing the anger, soft disgust and brave challenge of his character aimed at the omnipotent magician.
Luca Pisaroni and Joélle Harvey. Credits: Robert Workman
Matching him - but in a completely different, more straightforwardly masculine manner – was bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni who sang Argante. His first appearance (where he was supported by four trumpets) in ‘Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto’ caused an uproad among the audiences, and Pisaroni’s rich tembre and emotional and confident delivery never ceased to impress during the evening, including the more tender or playful moments with Armirena and Armida. A true discovery of the evening was also the sweet-voiced and youthful Polish countertenor Jakub Jósef Orlinsky, who, in all honesty, could have sung Rinaldo himself and whose arias - the one in the beginning an especially the final one – ‘De Sion nell’alta sede’ brought him huge rounds of applause.
Jakub Jósef Orlinsky. Credits: Robert Workman
Women shined – all in her own specific colour – throughout the evening, too. Sasha Cooke sang the male part of Godfredo (similar to a historic performance in 1711 where this role was performed by Francesca Vanini-Boschi) and was very impressive in her cool, relaxed posture, exquisite attention to liasons between the sounds and her continuous cooperation with other singers, as her character usually appears on stage with someone else. Joélle Harvey as Almirena was a little bit subdued (especially in interesting moments where her face froze under Armida’s charms) but was delightful and lyrical in a famous area ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’, which in her delivery re-gained a new momentum with each new beginning of a famous musical phrase, as though she could not stop the lament that was pouring from her heart. But my personal favourite was the statuesque and indeed goddess-looking Jane Archibald who excelled as Armida (indeed a star role here). Archibald was always in control of her wide-ranging beautiful and strong voice, and on top of extracting the beauty (indeed like a magician) from her heroine’s arias, she was also full of unrivalled artistry in showing a wide range of emotions that were coming to her like waves: fury, sudden love at first sight, anger at her love being unrequited, final forgiveness and piece-making. She was fun to watch and almost inviting us to silently laugh at some moments in the opera that were indeed very naïve by standards of modern psychology (like the one where she suddenly realized how handsome Rinaldo is), and also was exquisite in her duets with Agrante and Rinaldo, and interestingly placed herself behind Almirena when impersonating her.
Luca Pisaroni and Jane Archibald. Credits: Robert Workman
It is interesting how the pairs of singers were evenly matched. Archibald and Pisaroni were more emotional in their stage presence and delving into arias almost like swimming in the ocean in their vocal phrasing. Davies and Harvey, on the contrary, were slightly more subdued or even reserved, while focusing on delivery of Handel’s sounds with precision. After the final sextet where the singers joined each other for the finale of joy and happiness everyone in the audience understood that they just had been part of a true Handel celebration, with the English Concert musicians bringing an aditional colour into the evening’s palette, with remarkable performances from Tabea Debus (recorder, impersonating the birds singings) and Tom Foster on harpsichord.
Harry Bicket and the cast of Rinaldo in the end of the evening. Credits: Robert Workman