Handel’s 1711 opera Rinaldo was the first of forty-one that he composed for London; it was a smashing success and received more performances there during the composer’s lifetime than any of his other operas. Taking place during the First Crusade, it tells the quasi-imaginary story of Rinaldo, a Christian warrior, who is in requited love with Almirena, the daughter of Goffredo, the Christian general. The sorceress Armida, in cahoots with the Saracen general, Argante, tries to ensnare Rinaldo with magic and kidnaps Almirena, so that his mind can be taken from his Christian duties and he can fall in love with her. Argante falls for Almirena in the meantime, but the Christians win and Armide and Argante convert to Christianity.

Iestyn Davies (Rinaldo)
© Chris Lee

The production in Handel’s day was chock-filled with spectacle, including the release of a flock of birds during one of Almirena’s arias, Armide’s entrance in a dragon-drawn chariot and a battle on a steep mountain, not to mention waterfalls and caves. The English Concert’s show at Carnegie Hall was a concert performance: we were left with Handel’s glorious music and some glorious singing.

Singers came and went, some sat on chairs on the side as others sang. It was strange that some of them interacted and others did not, and it was odd-looking that some used scores while others did not. There was something earthbound about the performance until the score-free entrance of bass Luca Pisaroni as the villainous Argante. He bounded onto the stage and sang his rousing opening aria, complete with blazing trumpets accompanying, with dramatic verve, accuracy and big, bold tone, and continued in that vein throughout the show. His seductive side, in “Vieni o cara, a consolarmi” was just as effective, sung with smooth legato and warm tone. As Armida, his partner-in-wickedness, Jane Archibald, though not quite as active, also tore up the stage with brilliant, sparkling tone and vicious, pointed accuracy, only occasionally over-embellishing the already tricky vocal line. Her leaps up to high D thrilled, even if they were somewhat wild, and she stalked the good guys with wonderfully evil purpose. She lit into her Act Three finale aria, “Vo’ far guerra” with such abandon that she almost upstaged the full five-minute harpsichord solo that follows it. It was improvised by Handel at the première and it’s a fantastic piece, here played by Tom Foster. Both he and Archibald received roars of approval.

As Almirena, soprano Joélle Harvey took advantage of the fact that Handel, probably to make up for the lack of character in her character, gave her two arias of such beauty that simply singing them beautifully would be enough. We got gorgeous, crystal-clear singing in both the ultra-famous “Lascia ch’io pianga” (a tune Handel used in three different works) and “Augelletti, che cantata” with high recorder obbligato, and the lovely-sounding Harvey won hearts. Mezzo Sasha Cooke sang the thankless part of Goffredo, Almirena’s father. Score-bound, Cooke’s tone seemed cloudy for most of the evening, coming to life only in the third act.

Harry Bicket leads The English Concert
© Chris Lee

There were three countertenors. In the title role Iestyn Davies, sometimes with score but mostly without and greatly involved, was a great artist. There were many unhelpful comments during the intervals about Marilyn Horne, who is still considered the ne plus ultra in this role but the comparison is unfair; Handel Horne was sui generis, with a bizarrely large voice and almost superhuman technique and countertenors cannot muster such volume. What Davies did was to present Rinaldo as a would-be hero who succumbs to Armida’s magic. Even without benefit of stage machinery and sets we knew when he was enchanted and when not, so nuanced was his reading. “Cara sposa” was meltingly beautiful. And in both of his wild showpieces – “Venti turbini” and “Or la tromba” – he sped through the outrageous roulades with incredible accuracy and duetted stunningly with the trumpets in the latter aria. No, he was not as loud as Marilyn Horne, but he was a great Rinaldo.

Eustazio, Goffredo’s brother, was sung by Met Opera 2016 Auditions winner Jakub Józef Orliński, and his high-sitting, perfectly-focused countertenor rang freely and handsomely through Carnegie Hall. Countertenor number three was James Hall, who, score in hand, sang the roles of the Herald, a woman and a Christian Magician. He’s someone to watch.

What a great band The English Concert is, and what a wise leader Harry Bicket is. Nary a scratchy violin nor an off-key trumpet; only bright, alert playing with judicious embellishments and a superb sense of drama. One regretted the cuts of whole arias, but coming in at over three hours with intermissions, there was plenty of Handel, splendidly performed.