Thursday 19 November 2020

Handel's Rinaldo recorded live in a vividly engaged performance from Italy

Handel Rinaldo; Delphine Galou, Francesca Aspromonte, Anna Maria Sarra, Raffale Pe, Luigi De Donato, Federico Benetti, Anna Bessi, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone; HDB Sonus
Handel Rinaldo; Delphine Galou, Francesca Aspromonte, Anna Maria Sarra, Raffale Pe, Luigi De Donato, Federico Benetti, Anna Bessi, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone; HDB Sonus

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 November 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Taken from live performances, this is a vivid account of Handel's first opera for London, recorded in Italy with a largely Italian cast

Handel's Rinaldo was his calling card opera for London. Premiered at the Queen's Theatre in 1711, it was the first major Italian opera written specifically for London. And Handel pulled out all the stops. He reused a great deal of music from his Italian period (1706-1710), and as a result the piece of full of terrific moments. So, even though the libretto leaves a lot to be desired, Rinaldo crops up moderately regularly.

This new recording of Handel's Rinaldo features Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina, on their own new HDB Sonus label, with Delphine Galou as Rinaldo, Francesca Aspromonte as Almirena, Anna Maria Sarra as Armida, Raffaele Pe as Goffredo, Luigi De Donato as Argante, plus Federico Benetti, and Anna Bessi. The recording was made live at performances of Jacopo Spirei's production for Opera Lombardia at Teatro Sociale di Como in 2019.

The edition used for the performance is based on Bernardo Ticci's new critical edition, but the version performed by Dantone evidently combines the 1711 premiere with Handel's radical revisions for the 1731 season. The opera had a number of revivals during Handel's Italian opera period, but the final one in 1731 was perhaps the most radical. The title role was transposed down, whilst Argante and Armida became altos (losing much of their music in the process). Winton Dean, in his book on Handel's Italian operas is scathing, 'All the principal persons except Rinaldo are given music that is not merely irrelevant but at variance with the character as drawn in the libretto'. Not all Dean's judgements in the book are right of course, but the booklet notes are rather vague as to which elements of 1731 are included with 1711, but the opera as performed here uses all the voice types from 1711, and the major arias are in place. I suspect that where 1731 is reflected is in the cuts.

Handel: Rinaldo - Raffaele Pe, Delphine Galou, Luigi De Deonato - Opera Lombardia (Photo Alessia Santambrogio)
Handel: Rinaldo - Raffaele Pe, Delphine Galou, Luigi De Donato
Opera Lombardia (Photo Alessia Santambrogio)

Handel's previous opera before Rinaldo had been Agrippina which premiered in Venice in 1710. Agrippina is one of the best librettos that Handel set, whilst that for Rinaldo if not the poorest must be well down the list. It was written by Aaron Hill, the director of the Queen's Theatre, and then translated into Italian. It was intended to be spectacular, with lots of wonderful stage effects and in fact the libretto makes somewhat more sense if you think of it in the light of the earlier English masque and semi-opera tradition. Dramatic cohesion is not helped by the way Handel has included some of his more spectacular arias from his Italian period, even though they do not really suit the character or situation. It was all about the show. And the English loved it.

This disc benefits from being recorded at a pair of live, staged performances with a cast that is substantially Italian speaking. The dialogue fair rattles along and the whole is performed with verve, from the opening notes of the overture. Characterisation is at the fore here, and everything is presented in vivid colours.

Delphine Galou manages to make Rinaldo a striking and well modulated figure. She brings of the showy numbers such as 'Venti, turbini prestate' and 'Or la tromba' with the right sort of brilliance, whilst the slower numbers are beautifully shaped. In aria like 'Cara sposa' she shows herself well able to spin a lovely warm, well-supported line. For Galou's performance alone, this set is well worth listening to.

Rinaldo's love-interest, Almirena is sung with poise by Francesca Aspromonte. Aspromonte cannot help that the libretto gives her virtually no help, so that the character is profoundly wet. But she sings the music superbly. Her opening aria, 'Combatti da forte' is done with a nice swagger whilst 'Augeletti che cantate' with the sopranino recorders, is a complete delight whilst the later lament, 'Lascia ch'io pianga' is touchingly done. Her final aria 'Bel piacere' is completely engaging and perkily, putting a real smile on your face.

Anna Maria Sarra's Armida is vividly done from her very first entry, 'Furie terribili'. But that aria highlights a problem too, Sarra is encouraged to improvise wildly so that the vocal line goes well beyond that written by Handel, and throughout she is lavish with her overdone ornamentation. This is something that other singers are guilty of as well, so we must assume that it is a style that Dantone likes. This is a shame because Sarra is terrific as Armida, one of Handel's brilliant sorceresses in his operas, and she is one of the few characters which really leap of the page in the opera. She is not without a little wildness of tone, but perhaps that is in character! Act Two finishes with a 'Vo'far guerra' which is full of vim and vigour (along with some terrific harpsichord playing from, presumably, Dantone himself), yet the preceding 'Ah! Crudel' is sung with poise and character, strong tone yet with a sense of line and moving feeling that this is a real person.

That his entrance aria hardly makes any sense in context matters not a whit because as Argante, Luigi De Donato sings it so brilliantly. He has quite a dark voice, but a flexible one so that his passagework is both vivid and a pleasure to listen to. His Act Two aria is equally striking, and you wish that the character was a bit more than a couple of striking arias. He and Sarra despatch their Act Three duet with engaging vigour.

There is no Eustazio in this version, and Goffredo has only four arias (as opposed to five in the original). Raffaele Pe acquits himself finely as Goffredo, even though the character sometimes feels a little redundant. He has well modulated counter-tenor voice, which he uses to fine effect in his arias. Soft-grained and not a little stylish at first, and then more vivid in 'Mio cor che mi sai dir?' and finally tender in his Act Three aria.

The other characters are relatively minor, but provide strong support, whilst Francesca Aspromonte and Anna Maria Sarra double delightfully as the Mermaids (Sirene) in Act Two.

Dantone encourages both his cast and his ensemble to give us a dramatically engaged performance. Whatever worries about details, this is the sort of Handel operatic performance which whisks you along with its combination of music and drama. Dantone's ensemble are on fine form, and they get plenty to do her with the extra instrumental episodes dotted throughout the opera. This was an opera written to show off, both in terms of voices and in terms of instruments, and that is what everyone does here in a brilliant manner.

The booklet has plenty of pictures of the production, which certainly intrigues. The libretto is printed in Italian and English, but the English 'translation' from the original 1711 libretto is used which sometimes makes for awkward deciphering. Take this from Rinaldo's opening scene:

'Asia, great Sir, pierc’d by your wife commands, Beneath the thund’ring of this warlike arm, Groans, at the near approach of ruin’s tread.'

This would not be my prime version of Rinaldo, but it would certainly be one that I was delighted to have on the shelves. The sheer theatrical verve of the performance, combined with the Italian speakers in the cast, and a finely crafted account of the title role make it well worth investigating.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Rinaldo (1711/1731)
Rinaldo - Delphine Galou (contralto)
Almirena - Francesca Aspromonte (soprano)
Armida - Anna Maria Sarra (soprano)
Goffredo - Raffaele Pe (counter-tenor)
Argante - Luigi De Donata (bass)
Mago Cristiano - Federico Benetti (bass)
Donna - Anna Bessi (mezzo-soprano)
Accademia Bizantina
Ottavio Dantone (harpsichord and direction)
Recorded live at Teatro Sociale di Como, 11 and 13 January 2019

Available from Amazon.

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