In 1710, the composer George Frideric Handel was just 25 years old and freshly arrived in London. He’d made his name with Italianate operas in Rome and Venice, but in England he was a relative unknown.
Luckily for Handel, Italian opera was increasingly in vogue in London. Enter Aaron Hill, also 25 years old and manager of the Queen’s Theatre, who was determined to ride the trend by mounting the first Italian opera commissioned especially for a London audience. The virtuosity of Italian singing, Hill thought, would match the state-of-the-art pyrotechnics of his theatre.
The young Handel worked on the commission at remarkable speed, completing a draft in about two weeks. His librettist, Giacomo Rossi, complained admiringly that he was too fast to collaborate with. The result, Rinaldo, premiered the day after Handel’s 26th birthday and gave the world one of his best operas.
Handel went on to dominate English music but even after all his subsequent successes – and there were many – Rinaldo remained his most-performed opera. The plaintively beautiful act two aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me weep”) became a favourite – it endured long after Handel’s death, developing a life of its own as a concert piece and featuring in movies including Farinelli, All Things Fair, and two films from Lars von Trier’s Depression Trilogy.
This year, Pinchgut Opera mounts a Rinaldo that – like the young Handel – is swift, ambitious and energetic.
English countertenor Jake Arditti sings the title role beautifully, with notes that are by turns warm, silky smooth or – when the mood calls for it – dangerously flashing. When he sings “Or la tromba in suon festante mi richiama a trionfar” (“The jubilant sound of the trumpet summons me to triumph”) you can almost hear that fearless, gold instrument ringing through Arditti’s voice. Similarly, his “Venti, turbini” (“Winds, whirlwinds”) shocks you with its tornado of furious, agile coloratura. On Arditti’s anguished cry of “Venti!”, the sound spins like an angry gale.
Rinaldo’s love interest, Almirena, is sung by Australian soprano Alexandra Oomens with sweet, youthful clarity. Sporting blonde braids and a genial smile, Oomens looks every bit the virtuous military hero’s daughter (and a little like she’s stepped out of The Sound of Music). Despite this being a modern production, I was troubled by director Louisa Muller’s seemingly thoughtless decision to keep Almirena – the only “good” female character – non-ironically subjugated to the menfolk. She serves drinks and tidies her father’s paperwork in act one, picks flowers and gets kidnapped in act two and needs rescuing in act three. She holds a sword in the final battle, but by then it’s too little too late.
Musically, Handel chose Almirena for the show stopper “Lascia ch’io pianga”. As the orchestra took up the opening’s sighing chords, the audience leant forward in hushed anticipation. Oomens didn’t disappoint, letting each phrase grow from poignant stillness to a vocal bloom of heartrending, bell-like purity. That aria seemed to be the most carefully rehearsed piece in the whole production and I found myself wondering what heights the whole opera could have reached if similar attention was lavished on the rest.
In Handel’s Rinaldo, all the good guys are trebles. Goffredo, Almirena’s father, is sung by another countertenor: the American singer Randall Scotting. He has a gentle, elegant voice – perfect for Goffredo’s benevolent paternal presence – and an affable stage persona. He experienced pitch issues for the first two acts but settled as the opera progressed.
These high-voiced heroes open scene one with beautifully blended ensemble singing, and so much wholesome family hugging I began to think it was a missed opportunity for product placement. Then evil military leader Argante – sung by Australian bass–baritone Adrian Tamburini – makes a gleefully villainous entrance through swinging mirror doors. His booming bark (“Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto”, “All around I seem to hear the hissing of Alecto’s serpents”) reveals a voice so commanding, dark and uniquely textured it sounds almost primal. With his gleaming bald head and a giant fur collar, Tamburini didn’t hold back, hamming up Argante’s megalomaniac streak. What’s less tasteful is Muller’s directorial choice to give the villainous Argante a hunchback silhouette, walking stick and painful limp, which seems crudely ableist in a modern production.
His consort is the sorceress Armida, sung by Emma Pearson channelling the baroque version of The Devil Wears Prada. Wearing knee-high boots, silvery robes and false eyelashes so dense she could stab you with one blink, Pearson embodies glamorous evil. Her voice has a powerfully commanding richness and is so agile it makes child’s play of large vocal leaps and high-speed coloratura. Her act two arias – “Ah! Crudel” (“Ah, cruel man”) and “Vo’ far guerra” (“I shall wage war”) – had the audience crying “Brava!” Her ferocious energy is a good match for Tamburini’s, and their final duet, “Al trionfo del nostro furore” (“Let us run to bind those beasts”), bristles with virtuosity and uproarious theatrical chemistry.
As Armida’s sirens, Bonnie de la Hunty and Olivia Payne showcase temptress trickery and fresh, youthful singing. Rounding out the cast are Argante’s long-suffering guards, Arvin Bhattacharya, who has great movement style, and Yusuf Can Nayir.
Artistic director Erin Helyard takes up his usual spot conducting from the harpsichord, bouncing enthusiastically to the music and setting a brisk pace for the equally energetic Orchestra of the Antipodes.
For this production, Helyard beefs up the orchestra with a quartet of impressive baroque trumpets. But the most exotic addition is a recording of real birdsong, played over act two’s recorder melodies. It’s a cheeky nod to Handel’s premiere, when the ever-entrepreneurial Hill allowed live birds onstage.
Simone Romaniuk’s design creates clever illusions of depth in the intimate City Recital Hall space. The set – a hybrid futuristic-medieval chamber resembling a cross between a cathedral, a skyscraper office and a posh bathroom – features secret doors and mirrors, revealing surprises such as a floral bower for the lovers and a crystal palace for Armida. Costumes are also hybrid – think Kevlar vests with swords – but needlessly monochrome, flattening the production’s energy.
Even with Helyard omitting certain arias and cutting entire characters that feature in Handel’s original, Pinchgut’s Rinaldo still clocks in at three hours. The time passes quickly though, due to Muller’s fast-paced direction.
Finally, it’s important to note that usually Rinaldo is about the Crusades. In Handel’s telling, Argante is the evil King of Jerusalem and Goffredo is based on the historical crusader Godfrey of Bouillon, who besieged Jerusalem. Given the current Israel–Hamas war, Muller and Helyard wisely sidestep this context entirely, although it makes the finale’s reconciliation (“Vinto è sol della virtù”, “Evil malice is defeated by virtue alone”) seem unexpected and random compared with the original, when Argante and Armida experience a literal “come to Jesus” moment and all is forgiven.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Summoning young Handel".
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