Cher Public

Less than hero

“Venti turbini,” which should end the first act in a blaze of determined coloratura, lacked the needed razzle-dazzle.

Harry Bicket and his English Concert returned Sunday afternoon to Rinaldo for the sixth annual installment of their survey at Carnegie Hall of Handel’s operas and oratorios. Unfortunately the composer’s breakout London hit of 1711 proved one of the series’s weakest efforts so far in part due to a cruelly miscast Iestyn Davies in the crucial title role. 

Truth be told Rinaldo is far from one of my favorite Handel operas: its diffuse uninvolving libretto peopled by cardboard characters is nonetheless redeemed by some extraordinary music including several of the composer’s “greatest hits” like “Lascia ch’io pianga,” “Cara sposa,” and the march parodied by John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera.

Masterfully calculated by the composer and his librettist Giacomo Rossi to captivate their English audiences, Rinaldo is one of the many operatic efforts depicting a crucial episode of Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso involving the fraught romantic entanglement during the Crusades of the Christian hero Rinaldo and the pagan queen Armida. Frankly Gluck and Rossini handled it more persuasively than Handel did.

Yet Handel’s pageant continues to fascinate more than three centuries after its historic premiere at the Queen’s Theatre. Embraced by Marilyn Horne it became in 1984 the first Handel opera performed by the Met. The 21 (!) performances the company gave that year in the house, on tour and in the New York City parks were surely the first exposure many in its audiences had to a baroque opera.

I missed the reportedly riotous Frank Corsaro staging but caught most of the Met cast (Benita Valente and the indispensable Samuel Ramey) in a one-off concert in Chicago made particularly special by Carol Vaness’s sole Armida opposite Horne.

While the sumptuous stage spectacle that conquered London (and Met audiences) was absent from the English Concert performance enough of the work’s crowd-pleasing qualities shone through to explain its continued currency even as finer Handel works remain relatively neglected.

Jarring throughout the afternoon was the off-putting indecision as to how this concert version Rinaldo was to be presented: some singers clung to their scores and rarely interacted with their fellow performers, while others, especially Luca Pisaroni as Argante, ignored their blue paperbacks and gave full-on dramatic performances.

Davies, who had sung in the same Robert Carsen Glyndebourne production as Pisaroni albeit during different seasons, couldn’t make up his mind; initially he sang completely from memory but as the afternoon went on he became more and more score-bound. This confused approach contrasted strikingly with the English Concert’s recent and much more compelling performances of the magnificent Ariosto-based trio of Alcina, Orlando and Ariodante.

Davies’s theatrical blandness combined with his vocal unsuitability for the role left a hole at the center of this Rinaldo. Even in the best of circumstances his soft-grained, well-mannered countertenor lacks the flamboyant incisiveness necessary for one of Handel’s most demanding heroic roles. But a devilishly demanding season of the US premiere of The Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès at the Met followed by months of performing one of the title roles in Farinelli and the King up to six times a week on Broadway seems to have left Davies sadly under-energized.

One of the most gratifying aspects of the English Concert series has been that these great scores were performed nearly complete; for example only the brief dance music was omitted from Alcina and Ariodante. But five-and-two-thirds arias were slashed from this Rinaldo including two of the hero’s, a quarter of his solo music! I especially regretted the jettisoning of “E’ un incendio,” a fetching piece in the third act.

While I’m sympathetic to trying to spare its tired leading singer but perhaps Rinaldo should have been better scheduled during a less exhausting season? By the way, Rinaldo ended around 5:20 and Davies was scheduled to then perform in the closing performance of Farinelli and the King on Broadway at 7:00!

The role of Rinaldo is among the most demanding in the Handel canon—eight da capo arias plus two duets. Davies, whose David in Saul is currently unmatched and whose bracing Arsace lit up City Opera’s otherwise dreary Partenope revival, can be an essential singer of the composer’s music.

But he just doesn’t have the aggressive quality needed for the more heroic roles; I can foresee his Ottone in Munich’s upcoming new Agrippina being ideal but imagine he will all wrong for Polinesso in Chicago’s Ariodante. His finest moments in Rinaldo came in the first act—a lovesick “Ogn’indugio” cast a spell followed by an earnest if bland “Cara sposa” and “Cor ingrate.”

The surefire “Venti turbini,” which should end the first act in a blaze of determined coloratura was carefully negotiated but lacked the needed razzle-dazzle. As did the final drab “Or la tromba” where he was brutally outgunned by four brawny natural trumpets.

By contrast his nemeses—Pisaroni and Jane Archibald as Armida—couldn’t be accused of detached correctness. Sounding better than when I last heard him, he, as all basses inevitably do, brought down the house with his strutting entrance “Sibilar” and then prowled the stage with hypnotic élan either pining for the uninterested Almirena or reluctantly capitulating to his former partner-in-love and war.

She started out shrilly in “Furie terribili” but settled down for a finely moving “Ah, crudel,” the score’s most interesting character study. I might have liked more verbal incisiveness and fewer Zerbinetta-like ornaments but she otherwise gracefully embodied Armida’s extremes of ambition, love and revenge.

Her character represents Handel’s first stab at the unlucky-in-love sorceress who would haunt his opera career. Medea in Teseo and Melissa in Amadigi quickly followed but then nearly twenty year passed before he created its most complete and complex embodiment in Alcina.

Rinaldo’s relentlessly put-upon love interest Almirena must be one of the dullest heroines in the Handel canon (and there are more than a few) but she gets those show-stoppers “Augeletti” with its trilling recorders and of course “Lascia ch’io pianga.” Joélle Harvey in blinding white sequins brought a lovely purity and a refreshing dash of spine particularly to the latter and made one look forward to her many NYC appearances next season.

Sasha Cooke—who brought a hypnotically tranquil beauty to Medoro in the English Concert’s Orlando two years ago—was less well cast as Almirena’s father Goffredo. While she recovered for a moving “Sorge nel petto” in the final act, her earlier appearances were oddly muddy and muffled. James Hall who has been Davies’s cover and alternate in Farinelli and the King appeared as Araldo and Mago Cristiano and got to perform only one-third of his aria as the latter in a sweet, small countertenor.

Cooke lost one of her arias as did the much buzzed-about young Polish break-dancing countertenor Jakub Jósef Orlinski as Eustazio. He, like many a good Adalgisa has, threatened to steal the show from his “Norma.” Although Goffredo’s brother is the opera’s least essential character, Orlinski made his every appearance absolutely necessary.

The first act had glided by nicely but was all rather uninvolving until Eustazio began “Col valor” and one sat up and paid attention to his arresting manner and strikingly pure instrument. His subsequent arias reminded me that he had sung the title role in Rinaldo in Frankfurt last fall; more than once I wished he had done so on Sunday. Anyone who missed him at Carnegie or in La Calisto or Agrippina at Juilliard might catch up with him at his recital next week at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust.

Bicket and his band were predictably lush and vigorous as well as predictably not being very interesting. The conductor’s real virtues are well-known and appreciated by now but they remain somehow incomplete; little surprises or illuminates—all proceeds as expected.

Rinaldo could be exciting or ravishing by moments but one often wanted more. The small scrappy group operamission presented an absolutely complete Rinaldo two years ago at Merkin Hall and it more often thrilled and moved me more than much of what happened Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall.

Not to abandon a winning formula, he and the English Concert present Semele next year tempting fate by revisiting the work that gave Handel his greatest night in Carnegie history—the life-changing Kathleen Battle-Horne-Sylvia McNairRockwell BlakeJeffery Gall-Ramey feast presented on the composer’s 300th birthday.

But then John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists are also touring Semele next season.. How illuminating it might have been to experience a different way of performing Handel’s essential works at the city’s premiere concert hall!

Since yesterday’s performance I’ve been obsessed with Rinaldo’s bravura “Venti turbini” which concludes the first act. With La Cieca’s kind indulgence I’ve quickly assembled a sort of mezzos vs. countertenors compilation of live versions of that aria with all but Dumaux’s coming from complete performances of the opera.

  1. Marilyn Horne 1975
  2. Franco Fagioli 2016
  3. Silvia Tro Santafe 2003
  4. Christophe Dumaux 2009
  5. Ewa Podles 1999
  6. Philippe Jaroussky 2005
  7. Jennifer Larmore 1997
  8. Max Emanuel Cencic 2011

Photos: Chris Lee