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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.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Opera Review: What We Got Here is a Crusader

The English Concert performs Rinaldo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Going for baroque: Iestyn Davies (center) sings the title role in Rinaldo as Harry Bicket (seated, left) conducts.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 Carnegie Hall.
In the already esoteric world of opera performance, staging the operas of George Frederic Handel takes the anachronism to the next level. At Carnegie Hall on Sunday, conductor Harry Bicket led The English Concert in the latest of their wildly successful series of Handel operas and oratorios in concert. The latest: Rinaldo, the opera that made Handel's name in London, the city that would become that well-traveled composer's permanent home base.

The premiere of Rinaldo in 1711 was the most important musical event in Britain in the 18th century. In one fell swoop, Handel and the Haymarket Theater hooked the entire city of London on Italian opera. Rinaldo was carefully aimed at its audience: combining a legendary tale of the First Crusade with great music, moving arias and eye-popping effects create a vision of the Crusades that had nothing to do with history and everything to do with entertainment.

Here's the plot of Rinaldo: During the  First Crusade, the king Goffredo (the historical Godfrey de Bouillion) seeks to sack Jerusalem and defeat the Saracens. Opposing him is the sorceress Armida and her lover Argante. Armida kidnaps Almirena, the king's daughter and the betrothed of Rinaldo, Goffredo's best and most honorable knight, in an effort to tilt the balance of the war. The remainder of the opera is a quest to rescue the fair maiden from Armida's magic garden, followed by a battle sequence depicting the defeat of the Saracens at the hands of the crusading knights.

The title role was sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies, who currently stands at the front rank of falsetto singers. (He just completed a run in the Broadway play Farinelli and the King at the Belasco Theater.) Here, he sounded better in the early going, as Rinaldo's lovesick pining for his beloved kept him from feats of heroic derring-do. His high, clear countertenor was pushed to its absolute limit in the last act.

The figure that is of the greatest interest in this opera is not the callow Rinaldo but the sorceress Armida, played by Jane Archibald.  Her spectacular entrances (by a flaming chariot drawn by dragons) are met with thrilling orchestral passages, and her role as one of the first great villainesses of baroque opera was relished by Ms. Archibald. There were even a few stage effects (like Armida changing shape into Almirena) that were pulled off simply in this concert setting, and remained dramatically effective. The same is true for Ms. Archibald's command over this high-flying music, especially in the barn-burning aria "Vo' far guerra" that rings down the curtain on Act II.

These opposing forces were filled out with strong singers. Mezzo Sacha Cooke was a noble Goffredo, trying to bring some character to this pale figure. Joélle Harvey brought delicacy and great beauty of tone to Almirena, and had great success with the famous aria "Lascia ch'io pianga". Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni is a genuine star at the Met and he made the most possible of Argante's opportunities. A pair of fine young countertenors: Jakub Józef Orliński and James Hall (the latter also part of the company of Farinelli and the King sang supporting roles and excelled in their opportunities. Of these two it is Mr.Orliński who has been hailed as the next great star countertenor, and he did not disappoint.

Harry Bicket led his English Concert forces in a performance that was at once propulsive and delicate. From the dance of the two harpsichords (including Mr. Bicket, who conducted from the keyboard) to the twittering flight of a sopranino recorder accompanying "Augelletti, che cantati", this was a veritable clinic in baroque music-making. The orchestra was augmented by the four slide trumpets and kettledrums for the overture and the opera's climactic aria "Sur la tromba." It was in this final number that Mr. Davies faced his most difficult challenge. 

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