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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Opera Review: Fireworks Over Jerusalem

A concert Rinaldo strikes sparks at the Kaufman Center
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Armida falls in love with Rinaldo. Rinaldo and Armida, painting by Nicolas Poussin 1629

The 39 operas written by Georg Friederich Handel are a trove of great music that has only recently been explored by modern listeners. It is the ambition of conductor and harpsichordist Jennifer Peterson and her company operamission to correct that. Last week, at the Merkin Concert Hall, operamission presented their most ambitious show yet. This was a concert performance of Handel's fourth opera Rinaldo with a period instrument orchestra and an impressive cast. The work was presented complete and in concert, with the audience supplied with xeroxed librettos and plot summaries of the extensive recitatives.

Rinaldo was Handel's fourth opera, and the first work that he created specifically for performance in London, the market that would soon become the German composer's adopted home base. gIn order to make the biggest possible splash, Handel loaded the score with some of his best and most memorable tunes, even cribbing arias and instrumental passages from his earlier works. The effect is one of a career summation from a young composer who was ready for the world. And at its 1711 premiere, the world listened.

Handel's opera is set to a familiar story: the battles of the knight Rinaldo and his fellow crusaders against the illusions and machinations of the sorceress Armida and her various minions. The libretto calls for spectacular stage effects, including Armida appearing on a chariot drawn by dragons, the sorceress changing places with the knight's lover in order to try to seduce him in her magic garden and a spectacular battle sequence between the Christian crusaders and a Saracen army before the gates of Jerusalem.

All that and more was conveyed through the virtuosic playing of this taut ensemble under Ms. Peterson, who led the proceedings from one of the two harpsichords. The intimate setting allowed one to hear Handel's orchestration in detail, including how the composer would assign sections of the orchestra (first violins, oboes, bassoons) to accompany specific arias, reserving the whole power of the ensemble for when it was really needed. The score called for virtuoso passages from the principal violin, the first bassoon and the second harpsichordist, whose elaborate accompaniment for  certain arias was as impressive as the performance of the singers.

Although Rinaldo is the title role, the principal is Goffredo (Godfrey de Boullon) played by countertenor Nicholas Tamagna. Mr. Tamagna's high tessitura and agile instrument soared with an impressive upper register, occasionally touching earth in the chest voice to add emphasis to key points in the story. His stage presence was also intense and committed, with his eyes conveying the anguish of a battle-hardened king set on retaking Jerusalem for the Crusaders.

As Rinaldo, countertenor Randall Scotting had an impressive stage presence, his voice also nimble and capable of meeting Handel's occasionally extraordinary vocal demands. However the libretto confines Rinaldo to a passive role, a prototype for Wagner's Parsifal as he is tested by an evil temptress in a garden of earthly delights. The role of Armida is also underwritten, but soprano Christine Arand made a meal of it with a fiery voice that occasionally hardened when pushed to its limit. For playing an evil queen that rides around with dragons, it was entirely appropriate.

Handel's opera calls for two additional countertenors. In the supporting role of Eustazio, Andrew Rader had less material to sing but made the most of his opportunities with a rich, meaty tone. And in a small appearance, Biraj Bakakaty leant an unearthly, hollow sound to the part of the Christian Magician, a guru-like figure who guides the knights on their quest for Armida's castle. Rounding out the cast, soprano Malia Bendi Mirad used her small, rapier-like voice effectively as Almirena, bringing pathos to the part. Blustering baritone Franco Pomponi chewed the scenery amiably as Argante, leader of the opposing army and Armida's disloyal lover. He eventually scaled his big instrument down and sang with gorgeous tone in the second half of the evening.

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