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The travelling three counter-tenor circus

11/15/1999 -  
George Frideric Handel Rinaldo
Bernarda Fink (Goffredo), David Daniels (Rinaldo), Cecelia Bartoli (Almirena), Daniel Taylor (Eustazio), Gerard Finley (Argante), Luba Orgonasova (Armida),  Ana-Maria Rincon, Catherine Bott (sirens), David Walker (herald/magician)
Christopher Hogwood (conductor)

Part of the Barbican Great Performers series, this concert version of Handel's Rinaldo has been touring since the spring and will emerge as a recording in 2000. A premium production in every respect, it came close to presenting a brilliant work in a way that was attractive to non-enthusiasts while preserving its integrity. This peformance used the 1711 version almost complete. The voices were those from the original production, with counter-tenors for castrati (odd though it seems that a mezzo general has a counter-tenor younger brother). There was no ostentatious authenticity but the music got to speak for itself almost completely.

Christopher Hogwood brought out above all the sheer theatricality and drive of the music. Handel went on the record as saying, roughly, that you don't need to compose for London audiences; you just throw things at them. Although an Italian opera in most respects, Rinaldo has a high proportion of visceral, dance-like numbers that, like the requisite special effects, look to the innovative London music theatre of Locke and Purcell that was at its height twenty or so years earlier. Rinaldo's grandstanding aria Venti, turbini turns out to be a dense and obsessive hornpipe, while Argante's music is pure demon-king.

The singers were totally at ease with the music, which paid enormous dividends in their communication with the audience but produced performances which those used to nineteenth-century opera might regard as lacking drama. Luba Orgonosova (wearing spectacles and a matronly frock) in the demanding and difficult-to-cast role of Armida, the sorceress, sounded lacklustre initially, though she has an attractive slight but fast vibrato. She never delivered fireworks or dementia, but built up a sense of power and control in the long lines of her music that made her definitely frightening. Gerald Finley as her sidekick Argante had an easier time as an early incarnation of Handel's thuggish idiot baritones, with lots of bluster. In a western villain's get up (black shirt) and slicked back hair, he did a fine comic turn with a touch of Jack Nicholson. Bernarda Fink, like Orgonasova, initially seemed not to have the heroic chops for Goffredo, but built up an intelligent understanding of the music and character. She wore the regulation dress pants, but had rather more chiffon and skin than usual in most regiments.

The counter-tenors naturally couldn't barnstorm, but David Daniels sang Rinaldo with stunning precision and expressiveness. The role shows off his top notes and technique superbly. Daniel Taylor, who had some of the most beautiful music as the pious but irrelevant Eustazio, sang sweetly and musically, but didn't have much sense of drama. David Walker nearly upstaged both of them with his few clarion bars as the herald in the first act. He wasn't quite as incisive as the magician in the third act, but has a fine voice. (He looks almost identical to Taylor, confusingly when their roles are both saintly plot ciphers.)

Cecelia Bartoli, around whom this production presumably revolves, was in a different one altogether. She seems to understand the essentials of the vocal style, and is not so resoundingly wrong as, say, Beverly Sills or Marilyn Horne in this repertoire. But her singing isn't quite right, coming over as slightly shreiky or scratchy in the finer sections. This was shown painfully at the start of her duet with Daniels, where they sing identical music in sequence. Daniels was sparkling and delicate. Bartoli was pushing and coarsening every note in comparison.

The real problem with her performance, though, is that she gestures all the time, vocally and physically, instead of getting inside the music and working with it to communicate what it communicates in itself. For a toe-curling moment in Combatti, Almirena's rousing, quasi-heroic first aria in which she urges Rinaldo to go and give the Saracens hell, Bartoli broke into I-love-you-all mode. She sang all of her arias like concert pieces, and mimed and gurned unbearable grief throughout Lascia ch'io piango. But it wasn't particularly moving, just a display of her being moved. It's amusing that this aria is familiar in the UK primarily through an advertisement for a brand that represents pre-packaged ostentation.

But Almirena is a fairly small and insignificant role, a girly for the heroes to rescue. This is going to be an incredible recording, and if it takes Bartoli to get it together, it's difficult to object.

H.E. Elsom



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