The English Concert, Harry Bicket
Barbican. 13 March 2018
Rinaldo is a curious opera. Cobbled together in early 1711 from some of Handel’s greatest hits from his time in Italy, it was intended a calling-card both for Handel and for the style of Italian opera that was just beginning to make its way on the London musical scene. It was the first such opera composed for the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, where the theatre’s director (Aaron Hill) was keen to promote Italian opera. As Richard Wigmore wrote in the programme note (accessible here), Hill’s priorities were “variety of incident and spectacle, with dramatic coherence a distant third”. Dramatic coherence is certainly missing from the splot, a loose version of one of Tasso’s tales of Crusader derring-do in Gerusalemme liberata. The “incident and spectacle” was certainly to the fore in the original productions, with its dramatic staging with mermaids, various flying machines, fire-breathing dragons, and a flock of live sparrows, the latter producing the inevitable results and some sharp criticism for contemporary reviewers.
These visual elements were (perhaps fortunately) missing from The English Concert’s un-staged performance at The Barbican, although there was enough interaction between the singers for the intricacies and inter-relations of the daft plot to be clear. It was good to hear the audience laughter and groans at the more idiotic twists and turns of the plot, not least the rapid switches from hate to love between several of the protagonists and the bizarre conversion to Christianity of the baddies at the end of the opera.
Despite the rather unusual manner of its composition, Rinaldo is musically a very fine work, with a sequence of excellent arias that I often hear performed in singing competitions. Handel’s use of instrumental colour and texture is noteworthy, not least for such magical moments as the tiny recorder imitation of the ‘little birds’, beautifully played by Tabea Debus, the frequent showpiece moments for bassoon (Alberto Grazzi), cello (Joseph Crouch), violin (Nadja Zwiener), and oboe (Katharina Spreckelsen). He also managed to include an array of four trumpets, albeit briefly. I also liked William Carter’s subtle continuo theorbo contribution, particularly during the more intimate moments.
The outstanding instrumental contribution came from the second harpsichord player Tom Foster and his frighteningly virtuosic recreation of Handel’s extended harpsichord solos during the Armida’s aria at the end of Act 2, Vo’ far Guerra. Although Handel would have improvised these in performance, they were later written down and published by William Babell. They are an extraordinary moment in musical history, equal in importance to Bach’s own promotion of the harpsichord in Brandenburg 5. Quite deservedly, Tom Foster got the biggest applause of the entire evening.
The evening was also memorable for the outstanding singing cast, led by Iestyn Davies in the title role together with Jane Archibald (Armida), Sasha Cooke (Goffredo), Joelle Harvey (Almirena), Luca Pisaroni (Argante), Jakub Józef Orliński (Eustazio), and Owen Willetts is a variety of smaller roles. Apart from the one bass singer, all the rest are higher register voices, soprano, mezzo, and countertenor, including one trouser-role (Goffredo) originally cast for a female singer. No dress concessions were made to Handelian gender/role confusion, the trousers worn by Sasha Cooke being of the more feminine type, accompanied by an off-the-shoulder number.
Performing from what I think must have been pretty close to the original 1711 version of the score, without the alterations Handel made in 1717 and 1731, director Harry Bickett again showed his mastery and the control of pace and detail. Interaction between the singers, presumably worked out between themselves, was very effective. The dramatic scenery and background goings-on could only be imagined. The climb up the mountain became a stroll around the orchestra, and the siren voices were well positioned from one side, and hidden within the orchestras. The only bit of drama that was missing was Armida’s attempted murder of Almirena and Rinaldo’s subsequent attempted stabbing of Armida. Armida’s disguise as Almirena was achieved by standing and singing, from just behind her.
Rinaldo was Handel’s most-performed opera during his lifetime, with over 50 performances, and set up London as the centre of European opera. Charles Burney confirmed that Rinaldo had decisively put London on the European operatic map, noting that it was “superior to any opera which had ever been composed in England”.