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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Rinaldo (1711) [179.46]
Goffredo – Marion Newman (contralto)
Almirena – Laura Whalen (soprano)
Rinaldo – Kimberly Barber (mezzo)
Eustazio – Jennifer Enns Modolo (mezzo)
Argante – Sean Watson (bass)
Armida – Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Mago – Giles Tomkins
Donna – Nicole Bower
Due Sirene – Catherine Affleck, Melinda Delorme
Un araldo – Lenard Whiting
Opera in Concert
The Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
rec. Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto, Canada, 19-22 June, 25 August–2 September 2004
NAXOS 8.660165-67 [3 CDs: 78.47 + 52.15 + 48.44]

Rinaldo was the first opera that Handel wrote for London. It was premiered in 1711 at the King’s Theatre at a time when Handel was on leave of absence from his post in Hanover and when his career trajectory was not obvious. Handel pulled out all the stops to create a dazzling entertainment. The opera re-cycles much material written in Italy, Handel presumably feeling safe that his London audience would be unlikely to have heard his Italian works. In fact the opera could almost be described as a pasticcio; but we should not complain as the results are so dazzlingly entertaining and so convincing.
Unusually, the libretto was specially written for Handel rather than being based on an existing work. The director of the Haymarket Theatre, Aaron Hill, wrote a detailed scenario based on Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata and Giacomo Rossi turned this into an Italian libretto. Rossi was a London-based Italian who did much work for Handel.
As with most of Handel’s operas Rinaldo was written for some of the greatest singers of the age. The castrato Nicolini (a singer who also created the title role in Amadigi di Gaula) took the title role and Eustazio was played by another castrato Valentini (who also created roles in Il Pastor Fido and Teseo). Quite what the operas sounded like in Handel’s day, we will never know. More problematically, we will never really come to understand how much of a sense of drama Handel’s singers gave the works; but undoubtedly the operas do work as drama and some of the cognoscenti during Handel’s day regarded them as such.
This gives a problem for opera companies wishing to revive these works. There are no easy roles, every aria needs to be sung by someone who can not only encompass the virtuoso requirements but also get beyond these and use the music as drama. Sometimes the best - and most economic - solution is a recording based on live, staged performances where we learn to forgive occasional lapses in technique in exchange for vivid dramatic presentation from the singers.
The Canadian group Opera in Concert have chosen to go another route, on this new recording. They have gone for a studio recording preceded by live performances. In a note in the booklet Kevin Mallon states that they have tried to keep the sense of drama and movement of the live performances. Unfortunately I feel that this did not quite happen; there are stretches of recitative which are projected quite vividly but the arias do not always seem to convey the drama of the piece as well as they could.
Conductor Kevin Mallon, who also authored the performing edition used, adds lots of extra percussion in the more dramatic parts - notably when the sorceress Armida is about - to recreate the original theatrical effects.
The performance opens well with a crisp, lively account of the overture from the Aradia Ensemble. Mallon’s speeds are brisk but not overly so. Throughout the opera, the orchestra makes a notable contribution to the performance. In the opening scenes, virtually all the characters introduce themselves with an aria and we can examine the different singers and see how they present themselves. Marion Newman as Goffredo displays fine, firm tone and a shapely sense of phrase in the opening aria, though there are also hints of untidiness in the faster passages.
Laura Whalen’s Almirena has all the notes but her first aria, Combatti da forte, lacks a feeling for the drama of the words. After all she is urging her betrothed, Rinaldo, to fight bravely. In Rinaldo’s first aria, Kimberly Barber displays an attractive voice, with quite a strong vibrato, but she fails to give the aria the sense of line it need and her runs are a trifle smudged. As Goffredo’s brother Eustazio - a role that Handel cut in some of his later revivals of the opera - Jennifer Enns Modolo displays a fine focused voice and a nice warm tone in her first aria.
Argante, Armida’s lover, is a bass role and Sean Watson displays a wonderful sense of the Handelian bravura needed to bring his first aria to life. Watson’s performance will be the first aria on the disc to make you sit up and really take notice.
Of course the other really dramatic role is the villainess, the sorceress Armida. Here she is played by soprano Barbara Hannigan. Hannigan has an attractive, rather lyric voice that sounds a little too light for the role. In her opening pair of arias she produces some truly dazzling coloratura but fails to imbue the music with any sense of vitriol or villainy.
The closing scenes of act 1 are unusual in that they contain a dazzling sequence of three arias from Rinaldo punctuated by just one aria, for Eustazio. This was not a traditional opera seria construction, but it would undoubtedly have given Nicolini a chance to shine. Unfortunately, Kimberly Barber fails to do so. In slow passages she sings with beautiful tone and a sense of line, enriched by a strong vibrato. Unfortunately in the faster, virtuoso sections no amount of bravura can disguise the fact that she is uneasy and that her vibrato interferes greatly with the passage-work.
This is the basic problem with this recording. Most of the singers are quite creditable but Kimberly Barber, for all her musicality, has simply the wrong voice for the title role. This is a shame as there are some interesting things on the remainder of the disc.
Marion Newman’s Goffredo develops into one of the best things on the disc. Newman has an attractive expressive voice and a crisp, precise way with the passage-work. Similarly, Jennifer Enns Modolo impresses with her warm voice. Laura Whalen’s Almirena just fails to create a vibrant portrait of the heroine. Whalen is impressive, but her voice can spread under pressure. In arias like Ah Crudel the results are lovely, but fail to touch the heart.
Similarly, Barbara Hannigan’s Armida succeeds in singing all the notes but fails to persuade us of Armida’s villainy. It does not help that Hannigan sounds rather light for the role and must compete with a variety of percussion effects.
Casting an opera like this for recording is a tricky issue with so many soprano and mezzo-soprano voices. Whilst all the singers have different sounding voices, the differences are perhaps not as great as they could have been. A musical director can often help the listeners by casting singers with significantly different-sounding voices, something that does not really happen here.
The opera has been rather oddly served on disc. Jean-Claude Malgloire’s recording from the late 1970s has fine performances from Carolyn Watkinson and Ileana Cotrubas but not everyone will like Malgloire’s approach and the period orchestra is showing its age. The most recent recording, under René Jacobs, is also an acquired taste as Jacobs makes some interesting editorial and musicological choices, though the performances from the singers are fine. The most recommended recording is Christopher Hogwood’s, which has much to recommend it providing the sound of David Daniels and Cecilia Bartoli (as Rinaldo and Almirena) appeals to you; personally I find them rather an acquired taste in this work.
All in all this performance from Kevin Mallon and Opera in Concert is a performance that fails to live up to its promise. Handel enthusiasts might want to have it, for completeness sake if you don’t have the opera already. But if you are unfamiliar with Handel’s opera seria, then I would not advise buying it; save up and get a better recording.
Robert Hugill


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