Rinaldo: a story of love, battle and colonialism (Barbican, 13 March 2018)
Almost a year after Ariodante, the London public has returned to the Barbican for Handel’s first local smash hit, 1711’s Rinaldo. Set during the First Crusade, Rinaldo manages the feat to be both unapologetically silly and decidedly un-PC. Goffredo’s army has come very close to liberating Sion from the Saracens when Argante’s top scheming ally, the witch Armida, has nonchalantly plucked Rinaldo’s beloved from under his nose.
Armida: sorry, stud, I need your fiance for a moment. poof!
Rinaldo: … what just happened? … and where is Almirena? [aka, Cara sposa]
Goffredo: you can get my daughter back after we conquer Sion.
Rinaldo: no! Almirena first, battle next.
He might be young and relatively unexperienced but things fall into place the way he wants them to. Super bonus: the baddies, Argante and Armida, willingly (narrow miss) convert to Christianity! All in a day’s work.
The English Concert
Harry Bicket conductor
Iestyn Davies Rinaldo
Jane Archibald Armida
Sasha Cooke Goffredo
Joelle Harvey Almirena
Luca Pisaroni Argante
Jakub Józef Orliński Eustazio
Owen Willetts Mago
As far as concert performances go, this was a mixed bag. The English Concert was in its usual high form, very disciplined, at best in the muscular parts of the score, with just minimal desynchs in the wind section and some – I guess inevitable – trumpet clarity trouble in the trills of Or la tromba. To the trumpets’ credit, they absolutely rocked Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto, which was the highlight of the night for me (surprise, surprise). They did such a good job as far as I’m concerned that they very narrowly upstaged Pisaroni.
Everybody before him (and some after) started a bit cautiously but he took this massive entrance aria with the right aplomb and confidence (and sang without a score through the night). It didn’t hurt that his voice was 2 sizes larger than everyone else’s. However he didn’t show this off for the sake of muscle flexing and resized back for the rest of his interventions. Even here he played with volume dynamics in the coloratura – perhaps foreshadowing Argante’s weakness? Now if you have volume and you’re called to sing an aria such as this I’m all for you firing on all cylinders 😀 and if you can play with it, that’s even better.
Pisaroni was also the most committed acting-wise, showing softeness when Argante falls for Almirena, (almost comical) caution and passion with lover/ally Armida and a very smooth U-turn at the end, when the baddies admit deafeat. This on top of the right amount of boastfulness of a “feared enemy”. It’s a silly role but a more nuanced one that you’d immediately give credit.
As Armida, Archibald was her usual self, I guess. I’m not a fan (for me she’s a soprano who has a very ringing but rather unpleasant top and little of interest elsewhere) but I will allow that, dramatically, her interactions with Pisaroni were rather fun. Vocally she was one of the most cautious ones, so Furie terribili was a bust – at least for me. Let us not forget that Handel wrote for virtuosi, who cherished the challenge to make a grand entrance, whereas I felt that she was still guaging how far her voice could go. If you have a voice large and sonorous enough to sing Strauss I’d say you could blast through a 2min Handel bravura aria (ok, ok, different style and all – but still; also as far as style went I thought she did well). But aside from a not entirely style-appropriate reach to the top of her voice later on, you wouldn’t have known what volume she has at her disposal. The coloratura was correct, if rather robotic (as Baroque Bird noted) but the moments when she cruelly played with Rinaldo by manhandling Almirena weren’t bad dramatically.
She was also unfairly hampered by the harpischord in that aria that features the keyboard at length, I wouldn’t know what to tell you about her interpreation, thank you overbearing harpsi. Imagine your concert performance is going well, with the various instruments having their moments, when an aria comes where you detect more prominent than usual harsichord involvement. At first I thought “how cool! There harpsi comes to the forefront to loudly let us know what it thinks, not just to whisper as it normally does – it’s ok if all the others (including the soprano) have to stop, turn around and pay attention.” It was ok and interesting even the second time. Then the third time came. Ok, I thought, Tom Foster is a very skilled player, why not? Oh, and this is actually an aria and the soprano is trying to convey something or another. What was that again? Nevermind, the harpsi will return for a fourth time. So all in all in that aria, the harpsi had centre stage for about 15min and the sorpano for 3. Classic(al) drum solo moment if I’ve ever seen one!
It was only upon further researching that I realised that was Vo far guerra (Archibald’s Italian diction isn’t anything to write home about…) and the harpsichord part is nowhere near as verbose, though it’s there and it’s definitely fun [edit: well, I’m proven kinda wrong. In the sense you can improv the hell out of it – according to your taste. It’s better if it’s at the end, though]. You’ll ask yourself, “come on, dehggi, you didn’t know Vo far guerra?!” Dear reader, I thought I did (kinda; that being said I totally forgot about Or la tromba until it started). One of the problems with the Barbican’s open plan hall is that if you’re seated on the Balcony and have my eyesight you can’t read the surtitles (I used the opera glasses to keep up with the plot but you can’t do it all the time or chance a headache).
Now of course I know Baroque is all about excess and if the singers can do their shtick, why not the instruments? Right, but it’s still an opera and not a keyboard concerto with bonus singing. Nevermind, judged by the ovations, this was the crowd’s favourite moment of the night, so there you go.
Iestyn Davies has been our local Rinaldo for a while now but I have to say he wasn’t in top form the other night. He came off a bit pale, both vocally and dramatically (most alive as a lover in his interactions with Harvey’s Almirena) and, hate to say it, his Rinaldo was upstaged in both stage presence and vocal shine by Orliński’s Eustazio – who has already sung his own Rinaldo in Frankfurt and I could see why.
I noticed some physical struggle with Davies’ coloratura in the massive bravura arias, which took his attention away from the drama. Especially in Or la tromba one needs to look like a very hopeful hero, ready to take on the last challenge in battle, and all I got from him was careful singing. I know it comes very late in the game but, you know, tough luck. In defense of the trumpets, aside from some tonal blur in the trills, the rest was great, beautiful sound, very good synch. I feel like I need to reiterate this because the trumpets were a pleasure and I know this is very difficult (impossible?) to do spotless with those valveless Baroque instruments.
To illustrate what I missed here dramatically, I’ll leave you with this concert performance (don’t be deterred by the low quality audio):
Harvey continues to baffle me. Though a singer of pleasant tone, vocal commitment and good technical skills, her stage presence is nonexistant. Glyndebourne is mere months away, I wager she needs to do something, because at this point, dramatically I have very low expectations from her Cleopatra. That being said, Almirena’s second aria was beautiful singing, my favourite from hers so far. The Augelletti aria not so much, though the piccolo was the bigger culprit (I didn’t like the tone, though I won’t argue if you call me nitpicky).
Like I mentioned earlier, I liked Orliński a lot. He and Pisaroni had the best stage presence and enthusiasm by far and he showed a very beautiful tone and nuanced phrasing. I’m going to see him in concert soonish, so expect to read something more in depth here once I hear more from him.
Cooke as Goffredo wasn’t bad, perhaps one needs to hear more before making a definitive call (I hadn’t heard her before). I couldn’t make my mind up if she was a low mezzo or a contralto but that wasn’t a problem. She came off as a good Goffredo, who’s supposed to be older and wiser – with unhurried gestures and a fairly authoritative vocal presence. She is one of those singers whose chest register sounds very different from her top. The chest is pretty solid though not particularly resonant whilst she can get a very strong ring out of her top. It’s quite metallic but rather intriguing, so I’d like to hear more of it. As an aside, hairwise she sported the curl of joy 😉 so there is a little extra bonus there.
All in all, a good, if not great evening. I’m way less familiar with Rinaldo than with Ariodante and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the music Handel produced before his 26th birthday (it premiered the day after). The number of arias that have become Handel classics is impressive and the lesser known ones ain’t bad either.
The conversations around me were way amusing (how many times have we seen Davies? Three? No, many! Even when Farinelli transfered to the West End! He was also in something else here, though in a secondary role [dehggi: he was Ottone in Poppea
a couple almost 4 years back, which is known as not having lesser roles – actually his E pur io torno qui is very nice]), though Mr. Twitter with fascist hair’s constant leaning directly in my line of view, especially during Cara sposa, wasn’t. I know not everyone suffers as much as I do if I can’t see the singers but I hate the disconnect. I have to say this was the first time I had “restricted view” at the Barbican. Moral of the story: never get second row Balcony seats, try higher.
Anyway! the next Handel opera concert performance at the Barbican is Serse this coming October, with Pomo d’Oro and a starry cast, including a certain contralto referenced in this very post 😀 I coughed up £40 for a second row Stalls seat so let’s hope all is good by then.
(as usual, sorry for the possible typos)