George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Sonia Prina (mezzo) - Rinaldo
Varduhi Abrahamyan (mezzo) - Goffredo
Tim Mead (counter-tenor) - Eustazio
Anett Fritsch (soprano) - Almirena
Brenda Rae (soprano) - Armida
Luca Pisaroni (bass) - Argante
William Towers (counter-tenor) - A Christian Magician
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Ottavio Dantone
rec. Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, UK, August 2011. DSD
Robert Carsen (Stage Director)
Subtitles: English, French, German
Sound: 2.0 LPCM stereo + 5.1 (5.0) DTS
(also available on blu-ray OABD7107D)
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1081D [161:32]
Rinaldo is the work with which Handel made his London debut at the Haymarket Theatre in 1711. It remained his most popular opera during his lifetime but has been much less popular since. Though there’s a fine recording on CD, directed by Christopher Hogwood, with David Daniels and Cecilia Bartoli (Decca 467 0872, 3 CDs - see my November 2009 Download Roundup), and a DVD version directed by Harry Bicket (Arthaus Musik 100388: ‘a distinctly mixed bag’ according to Peter Wells - review), the new Glyndebourne recording deserves a qualified welcome.
Many of you will already have seen and heard this recording when it was broadcast on BBC Four at the end of March, and will have made up your own minds about the quality of the performance - generally very good - and production. Glyndebourne bowed to the regrettable modern fashion of fooling about with the setting. I’m entirely with the reviewer in The Times who advised prospective purchasers to listen wholeheartedly but to watch with caution - my emphasis; don’t be deceived by what looks like a conventional production on the DVD cover - but you may think otherwise than me about what the blurb describes as ‘fun filled … contemporary chic’.
I’d best begin with a confession; I recorded the BBC broadcast, fully intending to watch and listen to it very soon thereafter. In fact, I listened to just over half and lost patience with the production, intending to return at a later date and listen to the rest in audio only. It’s still sitting on my HDD recorder and I’ve even contemplated erasing it several times. What it has inspired me to do, however, is to return to the Hogwood recording with enjoyment.
I began with the DVD as I’d intended to continue with my HDD recording, in audio only via my computer and my usual listening system in my study. Devoid of the sight of what was happening on stage, I was more than happy with what I heard; if issued in audio-only form, this recording would have a strong claim, especially as the DVD sounds very well when played on either of my audio systems - I keep a Cambridge Audio 650BD player exclusively for audio: it works superbly with SACD, blu-ray, DVD, CD and mp3. (See Kirk McElhearn’s enthusiastic review of its successor, the 651BD.) The sound quality is good, with an excellent balance between voices and orchestra - not always attained in live recordings - and very little distracting stage noise.
There are no weak members of the cast; Ottavio Dantone’s direction is excellent and the orchestra provide first-class support. Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo is a delight; cara sposa receives from her as good a performance as any that I’ve heard, rivalling even Sarah Connolly whom I’ve hitherto regarded as the prime contemporary female exponent of Handel’s counter-tenor heroes. Anett Fritsch’s Lascia ch’io piango is about as good as it gets, too.
Of the other voices it was Luca Pisarone as the dark-voiced Saracen chief Argante who made the greatest impression on me. I understand that Varduhi Abrahamayan took on the role of Goffredo at short notice; by the time that the recording was made she had clearly made it her own. Brenda Rae’s kinky Armida is a sight to behold as well as a vocal delight.
One reviewer reported that the Glyndebourne audience emitted an audible groan as the curtain went up on the opening classroom scene. Though not much given to groans, I fully understand how they felt. Everything about the production is very slick, but a school classroom, however posh - teachers who wear gowns and academic squares - and, later, the bike shed is no substitute for the magic enchantments envisaged by Handel’s librettist and by his source, Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. Sonia Prina’s cara sposa, which I’ve praised, is somehow diminished by seeing her deliver it crawling in school uniform on the floor against the mesh of the bike shed. On the first night I gather that the effect was further diminished by a power cut.
Nor did I think the sight of the mounting of bicycles to ride as trusty steeds into battle added much to Prina’s fine singing of venti, turbini - just the opposite - though the audience clearly enjoyed the sight of Rinaldo on his ‘steed’ silhouetted, ET-style against the moon, albeit with visible support. Tim Mead had to contend with mending a flat tyre while delivering a fine account of siam prossimi al porto - da questo lido aprico. Are we really meant to be allured by the buck-toothed bespectacled sirens who tempt Rinaldo into their boat, or indeed by the equally unattractive make-up of Almirena herself, whom they are meant to resemble?
So I shall listen to the Glyndebourne set in future, but in audio only, which places it up against the competition of Christopher Hogwood, David Daniels and Cecilia Bartoli. Though the DVD and even the blu-ray versions can be obtained for around £24 and £29 respectively, slightly less than the Decca CDs (467 0872, around £35), in a straight contest I’d have to choose the latter.
It’s to Hogwood on CD, therefore, that I primarily direct potential listeners. Those seeking a bargain should avoid the Naxos recording - review - but they could do much worse than consider the period-instrument version recorded by Jean-Claude Malgoire with Carolyn Watkinson as Rinaldo and la grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy in 1977. It comes on a 3-CD set for around £13.50 (Sony Opera House 88697576412) or in a temptingly inexpensive 22-CD box with Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Alessandro, Lotario, Partenope and Serse (Sony/RCA/Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697489402, around £50). The individual discs are housed in cardboard slipcases and there’s a booklet with cast details and synopses of all eight operas - sadly, a very brief one in the case of Rinaldo. None of the recordings would be front-runners but all are much more than adequate; Alan Blyth recommended the Rinaldo in 1978 as one of the most enjoyable Handel opera recordings that he’d heard. I inherited the set from a friend who died recently and can recommend it as an outstanding bargain.
The new Glyndebourne set will serve you well if you can take the visual idiosyncrasies better than I did. Otherwise it has to be Christopher Hogwood’s team on Decca or the bumper bargain 22-CD set from Sony.
Visually distracting, aurally very well worth considering.