This performance of Rinaldo was the sixth in a nearly annual series of Handel operas and oratorios presented by The English Concert at Carnegie Hall, launched in 2013 with Radamisto and which continues next season with Semele, in April. Harry Bicket has led accounts of three great Italian operas written by Handel in the 1730s. With Rinaldo, Bicket returned to the beginning of Handel’s career in London; Rinaldo premiered at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket in 1711.
A story of love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusade, Rinaldo is filled with implausible plot twists. But it also contains some of Handel’s most-beloved music. In addition to the wonderful score, two things were responsible for the opera’s success – superb singers and spectacular staging. This Carnegie Hall presentation had no scenic extravaganzas. The pagan sorceress Armida did not make her entrance flying on a chariot drawn by fire-belching dragons, nor did real birds fly around the theater as Almirena waited for her beloved Rinaldo in her garden. What we did have was an abundance of dazzling singing and energetic playing by a highly accomplished orchestra – showing why Rinaldo remained Handel’s most-popular stage-work during his lifetime.
As the eponymous warrior-hero, Iestyn Davies displayed tremendous color, depth and stamina throughout his eight arias and two duets. He sang with radiant sound and poignant vulnerability ‘Ogni indugio d’un amante’ and the resplendent ‘Cara sposa’, and was at his best in the more-bravura ‘Venti, turbine, prestate’, set against a colorful duo of violin and bassoon, and in ‘Or la tromba’, his virtuosity was set against a heroic and brilliantly-played accompaniment of four trumpets.
The other singers were equally impressive. As the strong-willed sorceress Armida, Jane Archibald was full of fire and vocal intensity, most impressively so in the energetic ‘Furie terribili’. ‘Vo’ far guerra’, in which Armida vows violent revenge on Rinaldo for rejecting her, was not only a dramatic showpiece, it also provided an opportunity for second harpsichordist Tom Foster to momentarily steal the show.
As the Saracen king, Argante, the powerful Luca Pisaroni brought appropriate self-righteousness and swagger to ‘Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto’ and went on to display tremendous range, resonance and flexibility. Sasha Cooke, in the trouser role of the Crusader leader Goffredo, revealed all of the leader’s noble composure and goodness, and was fluid and effective in ‘Sorge nel petto’ in which Goffredo gives thanks for his tentative victory over demonic forces. As Goffredo’s daughter and Rinaldo’s lover, Joélle Harvey was vocally pure and enchanting, and eloquent ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’, one of Handel’s most-beautiful melodies.
As Goffredo’s brother, Eustazio, Jakub Józef Orliński’s was especially bright and sweet-sounding. Filling out the roster was a third countertenor, James Hall, singing various small roles and making a late but positive impression as the Christian conjuror Mago.