In 1710, long before there was a European Union, a highly skilled migrant by the name of George Frideric Handel pitched up in London, which had caught the Italian opera bug. He was intent on showing the natives that they needed an original opera written just for them, and that his gifts were the key to open this door. He set it in the First Crusade, as the Christians lay siege to Jerusalem, led by Goffredo and assisted by the noble knight Rinaldo. Rinaldo loves the pure Almirena, but Saracen sorceress Armida has disruptive plans for the crusade and amorous ambitions of her own. She fails, the Crusaders take Jerusalem, and Armida becomes a Christian convert.

Luca Pisaroni (Argante) and Joelle Harvey (Almirena) © Robert Workman
Luca Pisaroni (Argante) and Joelle Harvey (Almirena)
© Robert Workman

Handel worked fast, adapting about half the score from his earlier work, and from its 1711 première Rinaldo – the first Italian opera ever written for the London stage – was a big hit. Handel never left London, and Rinaldo had several revivals and became the most performed of all his many operas. Some calling card for what was reputedly a fortnight’s work. Apart from the music, two things determined this success – great singers and spectacular staging. For this London performance we had to forgo the latter, so Armida alas did not enter in the prescribed chariot drawn by fire-breathing dragons. But we had plenty of vocal fireworks from an outstanding cast.

Iestyn Davies as Rinaldo is as combustible a countertenor as any when firing off dazzling coloratura passages, hugely impressive in those “long divisions” for which Grimaldi, the role’s creator, was famous. But Davies displayed a different sort of control in his Act 1 lament “Cara sposa”, spinning the long lines with exquisite pathos. And if the libretto fails to persuade us of Rinaldo’s truly martial character, Handel helps out with two spectacular arias accompanied by trumpets, stirringly delivered by singer and players. Armida too has her fire and fury moments, right from her entrance aria, also with trumpets and kettledrums (to use a Handelian term). Armida almost vies with Rinaldo for the position of primus inter pares in the work, as it is she whose actions drive the plot. Jane Archibald was frighteningly fierce and fearless in her (usual) angry moods, persuasively tender when required to reveal a softer side, and she sang magnificently throughout.

As Almirena Joélle Harvey was vocally as pure and beguiling as her character, but without mannerism, so that purity did not descend to soppiness. Luca Pisaroni (the Met’s next Almaviva) was luxury casting for the bass role of Argante, but was as committed as any, making the most of his solos and his musical relationship with Armida. Sasha Cooke’s Goffredo offered as lustrous a voice as was heard all evening, a burnished mezzo-soprano with some of the deeper colours of an alto, and with a dignity of delivery to match the character. With this depth of talent someone among the comprimarios was going to steal some limelight, and it was Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as a sweet-sounding and sympathetic Eustazio. There was a third countertenor for the tiny roles, needed for announcing others and bringing news, and even he – Owen Willetts – is well established and has already sung Eustazio.

Jakub Józef Orliński (Eustazio) © Robert Workman
Jakub Józef Orliński (Eustazio)
© Robert Workman

The English Concert was alert and stylish throughout, with notable contributions from the recorders in Armelina’s Arcadian “Augelletti”, and oboe and bassoon in Armida’s Act Two “Ah crudel”. The big harpsichord ritornelli in Armida’s “Vo’ far guerra” that closes Act Two were stunningly dispatched by Tom Foster, and got the biggest cheer of the night. Originally there to show off the composer’s keyboard skill, Charles Burney was rude about them, and maybe the episode was reminiscent of those interminable drum solos that marred 1970s rock concerts. But no authority claims that Baroque opera never deployed virtuosity for sheer fun.

Bicket was a sure guide, and he is not afraid of an extreme tempo, knowing he has the singers to sustain them. Rinaldo’s whirlwind “Venti turbini” was as swift as it was possible to be and still articulate the notes, and Almirena’s famous “Lascia ch’io pianga” was as slow as it could be without becoming becalmed. Yet both were among the many highlights, since both singers rose to the sort of challenge once inseparable from Baroque singing.

The Barbican was full, and there was a long queue for returns. Did they not know this was a concert performance of a Baroque opera, and they were in for over three hours of da capo arias, almost all for high voice, but without dragons? Ah, but what arias, and what voices!