Handel’s ‘Rinaldo,’ In Concert, Lights Musical Invention

Harry Bicket led The English Concert and soloists in a delightful presentation  of Handel’s ‘Rinaldo’ at Carnegie Hall.
(Concert photos by Chris Lee)
 By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Harry Bicket’s annual Handel performances with his London-based ensemble, The English Concert, have become a highlight of the Carnegie Hall season in recent years. The March 25 performance of Rinaldo treated a packed house to a delightful presentation of one of Handel’s most original scores by a largely satisfying cast and a stellar orchestra.

The modern Handel revival was a long time coming because of a lack of a necessary voice type: In the Baroque era, many leading male roles were sung by castrati, men surgically altered before puberty to combine the high voice of a boy with the lung power of a grown man. By the 1970s interest in expanding the bel canto repertory inspired artists like Marilyn Horne to essay great heroic alto roles, like Giulio Cesare. Horne made her Met debut in the title role of Rinaldo, the Met’s first-ever Handel opera production, in 1984. The nascent original instrument movement led to the formation of more transparent-sounding orchestras friendlier to the male falsetto voice, whose timbre is generally lighter than the reportedly heroic sound of the castrato.

Lovers endure: Rinaldo (countertenor Iestyn Davies), Almirena (soprano Joélle Harvey).

While the 3,700-seat Met has largely (and wisely) shied away from Baroque opera, smaller European houses continue to unearth a rich repertoire, performed by singers and instrumentalists trained to decode Baroque scores with techniques and understanding of conventions that bring them to life. In Europe, Harry Bicket and other Baroque conductors like William Christie and Emmanuelle Haïm have raised the bar considerably, steadily working their way through Handel’s dozens of operas and dramatic oratorios. Arguably, there are more Handel operas widely performed today than in Handel’s own time. While he wrote more than 40 operas, their active stage life was short, generally a single season, and then the scores sat silent in favor of newer material.

Premiered in London the day after the composer’s 26th birthday, Rinaldo was Handel’s first big operatic success. It remains one of the most popular of Handel’s operas, but it’s been seldom performed in New York. After a 1972 concert performance at Carnegie and a single Met run in 1984, Rinaldo enjoyed a well-received production at New York City Opera in 2000 (conducted by Harry Bicket); a small-scale concert performance in 2016 was the opera’s first New York performance with period instruments. More popular in Europe, Rinaldo was produced at Glyndebourne in 2011 and revived in 2014, and the opera has seen a handful of new staged productions just this season.

Tasso’s epic poem ‘Jerusalem Liberated’ was the source for Handel’s librettist.

Handel’s librettist, Aaron Hill, took the story from Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata, an epic poem that might be compared to The Lord of the Rings in scope and popularity. Rinaldo relates an episode during the Crusades around a decisive battle for Jerusalem, then occupied by the Saracens. Goffredo, a Christian general, promises his daughter Almirena to the warrior Rinaldo if the battle succeeds. Countering their efforts is the Saracen general Argante, in thrall to the sorceress Armida. During a three-day truce, Armida kidnaps Almirena, who subsequently catches Argante’s eye; Armida in turn falls for Rinaldo, who has come to rescue Almirena. Before she can kill Almirena to avenge both men’s romantic rejection, Goffredo’s brother, Eustazio, leads the Christian warriors to a wizard who helps them overcome Armida’s magic and the Saracens’ might. All live, the Saracens convert, the couples are properly sorted out, and virtue triumphs.

HHHHHandel’s 1711 autograph has the first bars of the lament ‘Lascia ch’io pianga.’

Without the spectacular visual elements of a staged production, the concert naturally focused attention on Handel’s inventive and tuneful score. The young composer was full of original ideas, even if he recycled many of his best tunes from earlier works – standard practice at the time. Touching laments like Rinaldo’s “Cara sposa” and Almirena’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” contrasted with the virtuoso fireworks of Armida’s “Vo’ far guerra” or Rinaldo’s “Or la tromba.” Varieties of tempos and textures provided continual interest; cuts kept the running time to just over three hours, which felt like a good length.

The cast was overall quite strong. While countertenor Iestyn Davies seemed more introspective than heroic in the title role, he provided admirable bravura vocalism, with fearlessly inventive aria da capos. (After this performance he headed ten blocks south for his final Broadway performance as a superstar castrato in Farinelli and the King, in which he repeated some of the afternoon’s top tunes.) As Rinaldo’s beloved, Almirena, Joélle Harvey’s silvery, lustrous soprano and confident phrasing gave her character more substance than the usual ingenue. Her limpid “Lascia ch’io pianga” was a real showstopper.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang the role of crusader Goffredo.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, as the Crusader Goffredo, seemed miscast in a part that sat too low for her voice (it was originally sung by a female contralto), and her passagework lacked presence and clarity. As Argante, the blustering “infidel” enchanted by the sorceress, bass Luca Pisaroni gave a generic portrayal of an unsympathetic character, more persuasive in romantic duets than in blustering rage arias. Soprano Jane Archibald, as Armida, was a deliciously temperamental and treacherous sorceress, with clean, focused singing, although gratuitous interpolated high notes contributed little dramatic or musical value.

Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, a compelling Eustazio, is a recent Juilliard grad.

The afternoon’s discovery was the young Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Eustazio, Goffredo’s brother. The 2016 Met Opera Award finalist has been singing all over Europe, including the role of Rinaldo in Frankfurt in the fall of 2017, but this was his first major performance in New York since graduating from Juilliard last spring. He brought a robust and sweet-sounding, evenly produced voice, intelligent musicality, and a compelling stage presence to his secondary character. A handsome man of many talents, he may soon be cast in a role showcasing his skills in break dancing.

I couldn’t help comparing this concert to recently heard Handel performances by Les Arts Florissants and Le Concert d’Astrée, both period instrument ensembles based in Paris. Next to their continental colleagues, the English Concert offered less sharply articulated string playing and a more homogeneous blend, although from my rear parquet seat much of the vocal coloratura was indistinct, so the orchestral textures might have been similarly affected.

But there was remarkable solo instrumental work, like Tabea Debus’ birdlike recorder solo in Almirena’s lovely first-act “Augelletti, che cantate.” Concertmaster Nadja Zwiener spun breathtaking roulades when Rinaldo called on whirlwinds to help him rescue his beloved in “Venti, turbini, prestate” at the end of Act I. The most spectacular instrumental characterization was Tom Foster’s jaw-dropping harpsichord solos during Armida’s fiery vengeance aria, “Vo’ far guerra,” at the end of Act II. The afternoon ended with the splendid (and surprisingly in-tune) flourish of four valveless trumpets as the ensemble joined in a final triumphant chorus to praise love and virtue.

The English Concert will return to Carnegie Hall in April 2019 to perform Handel’s Semele. Single tickets will be available beginning Aug. 20 at carnegiehall.org.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!