Rinaldo is the first opera that Handel specifically designed for an English stage, and in 1711 this pasticcio of previously composed arias as well as fresh music brought about the ultimate breakthrough for Italian opera in Britain. Three hundred years later, it hasn’t lost any of its charm, and a masterful live performance like this one can still make you hum its hit tunes for days.

Riccardo Minasi
Riccardo Minasi
Working together with impresario Aaron Hill, who had the original idea for the project, librettist Giacomo Rossi based the plot loosely on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, a fantastical epic poem about the first Crusade (1096–99). They focused on the story of the witch Armida who first tries to kill the Christian knight Rinaldo, but then falls in (unrequited) love with him, and enhanced this scenario further by introducing Almirena, who is the daughter of Goffredo and the leader of the Christian army before Jerusalem, as well as Rinaldo’s prize if he succeeds in freeing the city from Muslim rule. The other main parts are Eustazio, Goffredo’s brother and counsellor, and Saracen king Argante, lover of Armida. The plot has its twists and turns, but such is life and all is well that ends with true lovers united and a rousing final chorus.

For this concert version led from the violin by concertmaster Riccardo Minasi, all the minor parts were sensibly cut and adaptations were made for the size of the orchestra – so the title hero entered into a musical contest with just one instead of four trumpets for his final aria (“Or la tromba”), which proved to be enough for the effect. Tempi across the board were impeccably judged, though I prefer “Cara sposa” to be taken at a slightly calmer pace. The enthusiasm in the playing of Il Pomo d’Oro, a period band founded only in 2012, lasted from the first until the last note, and the solo parts – some grating sounds from the violin in the overture aside – were all more than competently delivered. Particularly memorable was Anna Flumiani, who tackled a supposed mission impossible – matching Franco Fagioli's lightning-fast coloratura in “Venti turbini” on her bassoon – standing and swinging like a jazz saxophonist.

Franco Fagioli © Julian Laidig
Franco Fagioli
© Julian Laidig
The first lines of the opera are Goffredo’s, and his role in the drama is to push the narrative forward, so a lot depends on interesting phrasing and rich tone, and Armenian contralto Varduhi Abrahamyan, vocalising with luscious espresso and chocolate notes, more than met these requirements. Eustazio is a role that Handel cut for the 1731 major revival of the opera and while it may be dispensable to the story, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the performance of countertenor Xavier Sabata, who impressed with sure intonation and musicality. Equally interesting was Gianluca Buratto’s Argante, as the combination of a lightweight, flexible top and booming low notes is what makes a good Handel bass. Particularly enjoyable was his big scene where he holds Almirena captive and the latter famously lets her tears flow in “Lascia ch’io pianga”. This aria is often mistaken for a showcase for vocal beauty, though I like to think of it as a test of how you can shatter audiences with the emotion you convey – and Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth passed it spectacularly. It had been announced that she was ill, but that was hardly if at all audible, and even her coloratura runs in “Combatti da forte” seemed effortlessly achieved. Her easy and youthful top was matched perfectly in her stage persona and appearance.

Almirena’s antagonist Armida is also a soprano role, but should contrast Almirena’s innocence with a darker timbre and erotic allure. In this part, Karina Gauvin lived up to the expectations generated by her standing in the Baroque music business. Very minor insecurities in “Furie terribili” were made up for with an interesting share of despair where others just rage, and she shone memorably in her Act II lament.

Armida’s object of desire was Franco Fagioli in the title role. If you like the high male voice, and the fluttering coloratura of Cecilia Bartoli, then chances are you will greatly enjoy Fagioli’s art, as I certainly do. If not, you will still have to admit that his formidable skills and dedication as well as his sensibility as a duet singer are impressive. Spectacular but always apt ornamentation is his trademark, and on peak form like this evening, the experience is stunning – even if there will always be purists who find him too flamboyant or boisterous. For me, Fagioli hearkens back gloriously to the image we have of the castrati in Handel’s time, who weren’t known for their modest take on the music either. And why not do it that way? If you happen to have a talent that makes you stand out from the crowd, then by all means use it.