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
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
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.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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