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Handel’s <em>Rinaldo</em>: The English Concert, directed by Harry Bicket at the Barbican
14 Mar 2018

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Handel’s Rinaldo: The English Concert, directed by Harry Bicket at the Barbican

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: (left to right) Joélle Harvey, Iestyn Davies, Sasha Cooke, Jakub Józef Orliński, Harry Bicket, Jane Archibald, Luca Pisaroni, and the English Concert

Photo credit: Robert Workman


And, Almirena’s incredulity might be shared by the audience at the denouement of Handel’s Rinaldo which, to the common-place cat’s-cradle of romantic cross-threads adds a swift lieto fine reversal which sees a pair of supernatural and mortal evil-doers overcome by love - for each other, for their enemies and for the latter’s Christian god. “O clemency of Heaven!”, “Blessed Fate!”, “Virtue has triumphed!” cry the elated, conquering Crusaders. “O happy we!” is the choric conclusion.

Indeed, even Handel’s contemporaries - particularly those English commentators and musicians who resented the adulation and success that the newly arrived Saxon composer and the Italianate operatic forms, styles and singers that he brought with him were enjoying in London - were quick to ridicule the lavish extravagance and artifice of the first production of Rinaldo, which opened at the Queen’s (later King’s) Theatre on Haymarket on 24th February 1711.

Spectatum admissi risum teneatis?’ ­- ‘If you were admitted to see this, could you hold back your laughter?’ - was the epigraph, drawn from Horace’s The Art of Poetry, that the esteemed essayist John Addison chose for an article in The Spectator, 6th March 1711, in which he derided the ‘painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes’, as well as the sight of ‘Nicolini [Nicolò Grimaldi, who created the principal role in both Rinaldo and Amadigi] exposed to a tempest in robes of ermine, and sailing on an open boat upon a sea of paste-board!’ [1]

But, if Addison delighted in mocking the real-life ‘sparrows’ which took flight during Almirena’s ‘bird-song aria’ - ‘there have been so many flights of them let loose in this opera that it is feared the house will never get rid of them’ - and the need for a team of stand-by firefighters in case the fireworks which illuminated the lightning and thunder caused a conflagration, then the London public loved Handel’s setting of the 24-year-old writer-impresario Aaron Hill’s adaptation of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberate, and didn’t share Addison’s objections to Giacomo Rossi’s libretto, with its ‘florid … tedious circumlocutions’.

Although Hill’s resourceful imagination and youthful ambition were not complemented by financial acumen - failure to pay both the tradesman who built the set and supplied the costumes and the musicians resulted in the immediate termination of Hill’s contract to manage the Queen’s Theatre - Rinaldo had a triumphant first-run of fifteen performances and, re-staged 53 times, it was Handel’s most popular opera during his life-time. At the Barbican Hall, a fantastic cast of soloists alongside Harry Bicket’s English Consort showed the capacity audience just why Rinaldo achieved and deserved such success, then and now.

Cooke and Davies.jpgSasha Cooke (Goffredo), Joélle Harvey (Almirena) and Iestyn Davies (Rinaldo). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

As the eponymous warrior-saviour, Iestyn Davies exhibited all of the ‘infinite variety of colour’ and ‘expressive depth’ which I admired when countertenor and ensemble shared the Barbican Hall stage for a superb performance of Handel’s Orlando in 2016 - to which he here added the stamina, expressive compass and extensive vocal range required to exploit the musical and dramatic diversity of the eight arias and two duets which Handel composed for Nicolini. Davies knows this role well and, though this was a ‘concert performance’, his characterisation and dramatic credibility were unwavering and as compelling as his singing. From Rinaldo’s first recitative, Davies’ countertenor was imbued with a penetrating dynamism which captured the hero’s impetuousness, passion and conviction. When the Amazonian sorceress Armida kidnapped Almirena, disappearing into the black clouds of flame and smoke which spew from her bellowing monsters, this Rinaldo stared into the orchestra, in disbelief at his loss, as if some answers could be gleaned from the spiteful assertions of the instrumentalists’ sinfonia. His grief found expression in both the beauty and rhetoric of ‘Cara sposa’, in which Bicket encouraged the strings to make much of their chromatic nuances and to swell with heartfelt warmth in the ritornelli. Davies ability to sing through the line with mesmerising communicativeness and expressive intensity, and his ease of movement across and between registers, was simply stunning.

And, if the firmness, warmth and expressive sincerity of Davies’ lower range impressed in this aria, in ‘Cor ingrato, ti rimembri’ it was the fluidity of both the vocal line and Joseph Crouch’s eloquent, responsive cello counter-melody that so naturally captured the pain of a heart so distressed that it must surely break in two. Then, quicksilver agility and sweetly piercing clarity marked ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’, with leader Nadjz Zwiener and bassoonist Alberto Grazzi matching the fiery nimbleness of the vocal whirlwinds. Even at the close, Davies’ countertenor sounded fresh and vigorous, equal to the challenge not just of matching the might and majesty of the four trumpets who enliven the triumphant ‘Or la tromba’, but to engaging in well-considered ‘duets’ and trilling in consort with the instrumentalists.

Pisaroni and Harvey.jpgLuca Pisaroni (Argante) and Joélle Harvey (Almirena). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Davies’ fellow cast members were no less impressive, though. The first phrase of Armida’s ‘Furie terribili’ flashed with fire as Jane Archibald summoned an almost burning gloss at the top to convey the evil enchantress’s fury, and she wasn’t afraid to introduce an occasional nasal glint to suggest duplicity and cunning. Archibald was untroubled by the extravagant coloratura of her second Act 1 aria, but in the following Act’s grief-laden ‘Ah crudel, il pianto mio’ she found beautiful tonal richness to convey an affecting sorrow which was complemented by plaintive oboe and bassoon.

Recorder player Tabea Debus charmingly evoked pastoral purity in Almirena’s ‘Augelletti’, her rapid-fire whistling conjuring an angelic aviary to dispel the image of Addison’s scorned sparrows. Here, Joélle Harvey’s crystalline soprano matched Debus’ sparkling spotlessness, while the freshness of Harvey’s opening aria, in which Almirena urges her beloved warrior to victory, was tinted with just a glint of passion at times, suggesting a flash of the silvery sword that Rinaldo will carry with him into battle. In Act 3, both the unison between voice and violins and the synchronisation of the fluid changes of metre in ‘Bel piacere’ were flawless. But, before that, Harvey had held the Barbican Hall audience spellbound in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’: Handel could recognise when he had a hit on his hands, borrowing this aria from his 1707 Roman oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (which had itself made use of material derived from the sarabande in Almira of 1705), but even he would surely have delighted in the grace, beauty and dignity that Harvey bestowed upon the deeply expressive simplicity of this aria, in which Crouch and theorbo player William Carter added discerning and delicate detail.

The plum-coloured hues and consoling warm of Sasha Cooke’s mezzo conveyed all of Goffredo’s regal composure and goodness in the ruler’s first aria of faith and contentment, while the effortless elegance and melodic fluency of ‘Sorge nel petto’ in Act 3 made Goffredo’s calm joy and deep familial love palpable. As Goffredo’s brother, Eustazio, countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński offered a slightly mellower, darker complement to Davies. The easy flow and even colour of ‘Col valor, colla virtù’ at the close of Act 1 impressed, while the lyricism and alertness to textual nuance of ‘Siam prossimi al porto’ evoked both the confident faith and the tender love of the three crusaders as they arrived at Armida’s sure to liberate Almirena from the sorceress’s clutches. Owen Willetts effectively characterised Armida’s supernatural opponent, the Christian conjuror Mago and light-heartedly injected a little comedy into the rescue mission, furnishing the Christian champions with an outsized magician’s wand which would have done a pantomime fairy proud.

Archibald.jpg Luca Pisaroni (Argante) and Jane Archibald (Armida). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Supernatural egos and volte-faces provided opportunity for wry humour and wit elsewhere, too, in Armida’s sparring duet with Rinaldo, and when the spurned sorceress put emotional neediness before pride in acceptance the apology of her errant mortal lover, Argante. As the leader of the Islamic forces occupying Jerusalem, Luca Pisaroni made a tremendous impression of bravado and self-righteousness in his entrance aria, ‘Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto’, squaring up vocally and physically to the threat from his Christian challengers and pouring his bass-baritone vigorously but smoothly through the long, running lines. Pisaroni acted superbly, through both voice and demeanour: when appealing to Alminera’s affections, his tone was tender; when responding to her rejection, his voice drew renewed strength from indignation.

Bicket’s direction was not overly demonstrative but small gestures made their mark and there was telling control of cadential hiatuses and resolutions. Understandably, in the light of the terrific instrumental playing we enjoyed, Bicket simply allowed his musicians to demonstrate their excellence, none more so than harpsichordist Tom Foster whose flamboyant rendition of the breath-taking virtuosic improvisatory interludes within Armida’s vengeful war-mongering at the close of Act 2 received perhaps the loudest applause of the evening.

In rejecting what he saw as the childish absurdities of that first production of Rinaldo, Addison did allow that an opera ‘may be allowed to be extravagantly lavish in its decorations, as its only design is to gratify the senses, and keep up an indolent attention in the audience’. There was nothing ‘indolent’ about the attentiveness of the hugely appreciative Barbican Hall audience on this occasion, however, and only the skill, care and insight which Bicket, the English Consort and the superb cast lavished on Handel’s music was required in order for our senses to be satisfyingly and enchantingly gratified.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Rinaldo
The English Concert: Harry Bicket (conductor)

Rinaldo - Iestyn Davies, Armida - Jane Archibald, Goffredo - Sasha Cooke, Almirena/Siren - Joélle Harvey, Argante - Luca Pisaroni, Eustazio - Jakub Józef Orliński, Araldo/Donna/Mago - Owen Willetts.

Barbican Hall, London; Tuesday 13th March 2018.

[1] Reprinted in Oliver Strunk (ed), Source Readings in Music History (Norton & Co., 1998), pp.683-86.

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