Concert review

Handel's Rinaldo - 1711 and 1731 versions -presented by Birkbeck College, University of London in association with Abbey Opera Training, Bloomsbury Theatre, London, July 31 & Aug 3

In an audacious undertaking Abbey Opera decided to present both the original 1711 version and the 1731 revival of Handel's opera seria Rinaldo side by side. The 1711 version has certainly been performed in modern times but the 1731 revision remains a genuine rarity and, in its complete form at least, this was probably its first outing since the premiere 268 years ago. Handel frequently revised and altered his operas, scoring different numbers for the various voices and personnel at his disposal at the time. He was always invariably eager to bring back a particular success. In the case of Rinaldo, substantial remodelling took place after an unprecedented gap of twenty years.

Rinaldo laid the foundation for all of Handel's subsequent operatic successes in England. Soon after arriving on these shores he met the impresario John James Heidegger, manager of the Queen's Theatre, and through him, Aaron Hill, who rapidly cobbled together a libretto on the legend of Rinaldo and Armida, drawing on episodes in Tasso and Ariosto. A certain Giacomo Rossi translated Hill's text into Italian and Handel composed the music, this feat apparently accomplished in an incredibly short space of time, made possible by the fact that Handel was already re-using a great deal of existing material from his recent Italian period. Rinaldo proved an instant success for the 26 year-old composer and he subsequently revived the opera a number of times. Returning to it finally in 1731, Handel substantially changed the work, rewriting most of the role of Almirena, curtailing some of the more extravagant set pieces, omitting minor characters and, most significantly, interpolating successful arias from some of his other operas, amongst them Lotario, Partenope, Giulio Cesare and Admeto.

The action takes place during the time of the Crusades. Rinaldo has been promised the hand of Almirena, daughter of the General of the Crusade force, Goffredo, if the city is conquered. Meanwhile, the Muslim Argante and his mistress Armida, Queen of Damascus, thwart those plans by abducting Almirena. Rinaldo sets off in pursuit and is himself captured. With the intervention of a Magician and sundry Spirits, Goffredo eventually restores order and frees Rinaldo who, in the final battle, swings the balance in favour of the Christians. Rinaldo and Almira are reunited; Argante and Armida are captured and convert to Christianity.

Abbey Opera presented the two versions of Rinaldo in differing theatrical styles and with contrasting musical forces to boot. Employing the modern instruments of the Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra, the 1711 versionwas set in a colonial context around the turn of the last century, in a production directed by Steven Stead. Meanwhile, to the strains of the period instrument Academy Cadiera, the 1731 version, directed by Richard Gregson, reverted to some of the basic tenets of Baroque theatrical convention with which Handel himself would have been familiar. Both came conducted from the baton of a hard-worked Antony Shelley.

Interesting though the latter 'period' approach was, at least for a short period of time, the "modern piece of music theatre" that was the 1711 Rinaldo, as its director describes it, proved by far the more viewable. Attractive lighting and costumes and a handful of well-chosen props set the scene more than adequately. Here the lure of the Orient, to which the abducted Almirena nigh on succumbs, was also intriguingly suggested; meanwhile, the final Westernisation of Argante and Armida, set against the opening of a pioneering new piece of railway line, also had its share of poignancy. Moments of 'deconstruction' and self-aware post-modern irony from participants - perhaps borrowed from Nicholas Hytner's celebrated Xerxes staging for ENO - leant further stylistic panache.

In contrast, and despite the employment of sliding screens and 18th century costumes, the authentic approach adopted for the 1731 version largely fell flat. Some of the stylised interaction counted but, here, we largely seemed to be viewing little more than a concert rendition. Which brings one onto the music in general. Unfortunately the period instrument Academy Cadiera lacked weight and technique. The horns and trumpet were very awry; and the general ensemble sounded thin and ragged. Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra, in Rinaldo 1711, came over as far crisper; and there was some acute shading between strings, well enunciated winds and a sparkling continuo. Throughout the eight performance run, four different casts were being employed, calling in total for no less than eight countertenors! On top of that, the 1711 Rinaldo sings in a higher register than his 1731 counterpart. Over the two nights I witnessed, results all round were mixed. James Huw Jeffries put in a brave and sustained showing in the 1711 title role, but the reedier Glenn Kesby of 1731 was no less committed or attractive. Again though, by and large, it was the 1711 cast which stole the honours, especially impassioned accounts of Argante and Armide from Brian Wilson and Lina Saavedra respectively, and the strong Almirena of Susana Marsh; though in 1731, the Goffredo of Warren Albers also made considerable impact.

But perhaps ultimately it wasn't the musicianship or the stagecraft per se which emerged as the most important aspects of this project. Instead, simply the opportunity to hear these very different versions of Rinaldo side by side was the greatest allure. How amazing that in 1731, for example, Handel can simply ditch the important role of Goffredo's brother Eustazio (fascinatingly made into his sister Eustazia in this 1711 staging); as well as, with gay abandon, transpose arias up or down, abridge and alter recitatives, change orchestrations about as a result, insert entirely new music, and still manage to recycle the vast majority of the words he set twenty years earlier in the process!

In total then, a highly valid and worthwhile experience - and what a great deal of hard work went into it: seven hours of Handel amounts to a great deal of musico-dramatic territory to negotiate.

Duncan Hadfield

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