Rindaldo - Something quite epic

Producers, and soprano and countertenor, Joana and Dominic, guide you through Handel's epic opera; currently free to watch.

The story of Rinaldo is based on the epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata, first published in 1581 by Torquato Tasso, which portrayed a love story set in the time of the first crusade. The opera, with a libretto by Giacomo Rossi (who collaborated with Handel on other occasions), premiered at the Queen's Theatre in London's Haymarket in February 1711.

Rinaldo was Handel’s first opera in London and he threw EVERYTHING at it. The work contained many show-stopping arias that Handel had happily pilfered from his own previous works. In short, Handel was keen to make his mark on a London scene that might have been a little dubious about Italian opera written by a German (or, more accurately, a Hanoverian). The score includes some of the most popular arias from Handel’s entire corpus… the beautiful but now somewhat ubiquitous Lascia chio pianga, the plangent Cara Sposa, and the brooding Vieni O Cara… alongside some of the most acrobatically demanding coloratura in the baroque repertoire. To sing the title role Handel blew £860 (a quarter of the whole budget for the show) on star castrato Nicolini (long before Madge and Gaga the castrati did a fine line in mononyms). Nicolini was renowned for his abilities with fast coloratura, and at 38 – then rather old for a singer – it was something of a late career triumph for him.

The cast included a few other star singers of the time, albeit less handsomely remunerated: Isabella Girardeau (or as she was called, La Isabella) as Almirena and her alleged rival Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti, as Armida, who played this role in 47 performances of the opera that took place on subsequent years and sung three virtuous and dramatic sorceress roles in Handel operas.

The opera was a roaring success and was performed more in Handel’s lifetime than any of his other works, making it all the more amazing that he put the score together in a mere two weeks. Whilst much of it was already written the opera is by no means a mealy mish-mash and it is crafted into a single and highly dramatic narrative with complex and highly textured recitatives and instrumental sections. Of particular note is the storm.

The original production was packed full of coups de theatre … the work calls for sea battles, storms, magic, explosions…all of which pushed the theatrical capabilities of the Queen’s Theatre to its absolute limits and still challenge designers today. In this Glyndebourne production they overcome the theatrical demands of the piece by setting the work in a school. We won’t spoil the chariots for you…but they are inspired. 

The school setting also somehow makes the high levels of angst in the piece work. Cara Sposa is beautiful but can feel extremely over-the-top emotionally (and it doesn’t half go on) but in the character of a love-sick schoolboy experiencing what it’s like to lose one’s love for the first time it takes on a new degree of plausibility. The heavily caricatured teachers as the baddies is also a lot of fun, and takes away the unpalatability of the crusades – which Rinaldo here lives as his own fantasy of schoolboy heroics – for modern audiences. 

Sonia Prina sings the title role and whilst Dom tends (for obvious reasons) to prefer a countertenor in the role (and indeed the revival last summer featured Jakub Josef Orlinski) she sings it gloriously and gives us a rarely experienced true contralto sound. She sings from her boots, or at least from Rinaldo’s DMs. When Dom saw this production – with Prina – when it first opened, Glyndebourne had a powercut in the middle of the da Capo of Cara Sposa, and poor old Sonia had to sing the whole number from the top again. But what a treat it was for the crowd! It should be noted that this production does give us two countertenors, in the mellifluously voiced Tim Mead as Eustazio and the gloriously be-wigged Will Towers as the Christian Magician.

The opera offers a lot of excellent repertoire choices and both Dominic and Joana have had a go at more than one of the multiple arias for alto and soprano and have even, quite recently, done a few concert presentations of the electrifying Almirena – Rinaldo duet ‘Scherzano sul tuo volto’ – no birds were harmed… (you will get it when you watch the Glyndebourne video).

References Handel in London by Jane Glover

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