GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Rinaldo, HWV 7a—Antonio Giovannini (Rinaldo), Gesche Geier (Armida, Sirena), Marie Friederike Schöder (Almirena, Sirena), Florian Götz (Argante), Yosemeh Adjei (Goffredo), Owen Willetts (Eustazio), Cornelius Uhle (Mago cristiano); Lautten Compagney Berlin; Wolfgang Katschner, conductor; Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli [Directed by Eugenio Monti Colla; recorded in Ludwigsburg Palace Theatre, Ludwigsburg, Germany, during the Ludwigsburg Festival, 22 – 25 May 2014; Arthaus Musik 102207; 1 DVD (also available on Blu-ray) + 2 CDs, 137:00 + 10:00 bonus material; Available from Arthaus Musik, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
Since the days of the pioneering endeavors of Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Jacopo Peri, and Claudio Monteverdi, innovation has been as much a necessity in the contrived, labyrinthine world of opera as in any other artistic genre. Without near-perpetual cycles of reinvention and rejuvenation, opera would be no more interesting or engaging than a school of painting dominated by a single artist. In this spirit, Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli's marionette production of Georg Friedrich Händel's Rinaldo, itself an innovation, having been the first Italian opera composed specially for London, recorded in performance in the lovely Eighteenth-Century theatre in Ludwigsburg's Residenzschloss, is a delightful testament to the efforts of artists, ensembles, and companies of varying resources to not only prolong but enrich opera's life. Performed in the past quarter-century in virtually all corners of the world into which opera has progressed, Rinaldo now rivals Giulio Cesare as Händel's most familiar opera. Its popularity is remarkably timely, the opera's subtext of conflicts among faiths resonating with the Twenty-First Century's struggles with bigotry and fanaticism, but the essence of Rinaldo, like all masterworks of the genre, is timeless. The greatest threat to the long-term survival of opera in the new millennium is neither disinterest nor disapprobation but the collective arrogance of artists, those who represent them, and those who support them. Art exists for its own sake, philosophers have opined, but opera cannot—indeed, should not and must not—exist in the elitist vacuum into which some of today's most gifted artists would force it. Opera was of course conceived as a diversion for popes and princes but in its adolescence made the vital acquaintance of less-exalted personages. The most encouraging aspect of this production of Rinaldo is its complete lack of artifice. Perhaps this seems counterintuitive in the context of a marionette production, but the observer here sees the opera's drama enacted and hears the music performed without the distractions of singers too worried about appearing fat, old, or unattractive to worry about Händel's characters and their motivations. It is disheartening in any context that a focus on voices rather than bodies is an innovation, but it is one that opera now direly needs.
Ancient sources suggest that string-controlled puppets have been used in theatrical performances for at least four thousand years. At the aristocratic courts of Eighteenth-Century Europe, a penchant for marionette opera introduced the centuries-old art of puppetry into the milieu of music's greatest spectacle. Though interest in marionette opera waned after the era in which scores were composed specifically for that purpose by Gluck and Haydn, the tradition was thankfully preserved by enthusiastic advocates, not least in Salzburg—an appropriate locale considering the young Mozart's appreciation for the hybrid art. In later generations, Manuel de Falla's masterful El retablo de maese Pedro and Ottorino Respighi's early La bella dormente nel bosco were composed for marionette productions, and a vestige of the art of marionette opera was honored in Anthony Minghella's much-lauded production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, first seen at English National Opera in 2005 and subsequently presented at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, in which Cio-Cio San's and Pinkerton's son Dolore was portrayed to heartrending effect by a puppet manipulated by black-clad handlers who virtually disappeared into the scenery. The many beauties of this marionette production of Rinaldo illustrate the love, goodness, and optimism that flow through Händel's score without ignoring the danger, violence, and extremism that lurk in its shadows. Realism is rarely the goal of puppetry, but the emotions of Rinaldo are often more visceral in this production than in many performances in which living, breathing singers occupy the stage. The movements of the marionettes are uncannily lifelike, and it is enlightening to discover as the performance progresses how an entertainment that is indelibly associated with children engenders one of the most mature accounts of Rinaldo in the catalogue. This is not a cartoonish production: the prismatic, detailed marionettes and sets evoke a fanciful but never foolish climate in which the opera plays out. So natural and graceful are the motions of the marionettes, maneuvered by artists no less gifted than those charged with performing Händel's music, that it is possible to forget that this is a marionette production. Whether depicting countesses or chambermaids, the goal of opera should always be to convince the audience that what transpires upon the stage is not a representation of something but the thing itself. That so many productions using people rather than puppets fail to meet this goal as memorably as this Rinaldo is indicative not of singers' ineptitude but of production values founded upon cheekbones and waistlines rather than timbres and techniques.
Led by Wolfgang Katschner with reliably appropriate tempi and an unerring cumulative sense of direction, the account of Händel's score given by Lautten Compagney Berlin is distinguished by a pervasive elegance that never inhibits the expression of red-blooded emotions. Shaped by the sonorous playing of lautenists Andreas Nachtstein and Hans-Werner Apel and harpsichordist and organist Mark Nordstrand, the continuo provides the ribs that resiliently protect the heart of the performance, passages of secco recitative enlivened by alternations of instrumental complement that follow emotional threads rather than simplistically contrasting the utterances of different characters. Partnering well-blended string playing, Martin Ripper coaxes beguiling sounds from recorder and flageolet, not least in the avian atmosphere of Almirena's 'Augelletti,' and Eduard Wesly and Christine Allanic produce streams of crystalline tone from oboe and recorder. The wonderfully characterful timbre of Jennifer Harris's bassoon affords great enjoyment whenever it is heard. In the opera's Ouverture, the Preludio in Act One, the Sinfonia in Act Two, and the Marcia and Battaglia in Act Three, as well as in obbligati in arias, the musicians take advantage of every opportunity to reveal the inventiveness of Händel's orchestrations. Hearing a performance as good as this one, it is all the more remarkable that Rinaldo is the work of a composer who was only twenty-six years old at the time of its première.
Formerly a member of the celebrated Dresdner Kreuzchor, young German baritone Cornelius Uhle has only one aria with which to characterize the Mago cristiano, 'Andate, o forti' in Act Three, but he makes every note of it count. There is a quiet dignity at the heart of his brief appearance, and his solid, youthful voice makes a most positive and promising impression.
The first Eustazio, Valentino Urbani, also created for Händel the parts of Silvio in Il pastor fido and Egeo in Teseo but was reputed according to contemporary sources to have been a stronger actor than singer. Händel did not give the character extensive vehicles via which to make his mark, but it is a luxury in this performance to hear his music at all, many productions excising the rôle altogether—indeed, Händel himself cut the part when Rinaldo was revived in 1717. The secure, shapely singing of British countertenor Owen Willetts emphatically warrants the character’s inclusion, however. He sings Eustazio's Act One aria, 'Col valor, colla virtù,' handsomely, and 'Siam prossimi' in Act Two cajoles Willetts to vocalism of great refinement. Had he heard as involved, sincere, and well-sung a performance as Willetts gives here, it is inconceivable that Händel would have suppressed any of Eustazio's music.
After creating Ottone and Pallante in Händel's Agrippina in Venice in 1709, spouses Francesca Vanini-Boschi and Giuseppe Maria Boschi followed the composer to London, where the wife took the part of Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, in the première of Rinaldo. In this performance, Nürnberg-born countertenor Yosemeh Adjei impersonates Goffredo with vocal strength and an aptly conquering demeanor. He sings Goffredo's Act One arias 'Sovra balze' and 'No, no, quest'alma' with focused tone and technical mastery equal to the demands of the music. Better still is his performance of 'Mio cor' in Act Two. Like singers of yesteryear whose lot it was to be compelled to 'compete' with the Tebaldis, Nilssons, and Bergonzis, Adjei is an excellent singer in an age of world-renowned 'star' countertenors. His performance here confirms that he can hold his own among the best of them.
Having garnered praise for his Pallante in Agrippina, Boschi the husband went on to originate the rôles of Argante in Rinaldo, Achilla in Giulio Cesare, Garibaldo in Rodelinda, Lotario in Flavio, and Araspe in Tolomeo for Händel in London. The music composed for him suggests that, though billed as a bass, Boschi was actually more of a baritone in the modern sense. So, too, is Florian Götz, who is in this performance an Argante well-suited to the range and agility required by the music. In Act One, Götz is a robust if lightweight presence in Argante's aria 'Sibillar gli angui d'Aletto,' but his bravura technique is considerably superior to what many heavier voices can achieve. Götz's flexibility in fast-paced music is admirable, and he has no problems at either end of his range. His phrasing of the aria 'Vieni, o cara' is both affectionate and unmistakably masculine. The magnitude of his singing of 'Basta che sol tu chieda' in Act Two is forceful, and his wryly insinuating manner in recitatives is invigorating. What the voice lacks in raw power the singer proffers in precision, and such attractive, well-trained singing is infinitely preferable to brawny barking—and not only in Händel's music!
Like her colleagues in the inaugural production of Rinaldo, Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti, the first Armida, would prove a trusted exponent of Händel rôles, eventually also creating Amarilli in Il pastor fido, Medea in Teseo, and Melissa in Amadigi di Gaula. Händel's music for Armida is some of his most difficult, but Gesche Geier here confronts every challenge unflinchingly. In her first line in this performance, Geier demands to be noticed, her voice darting above the stave as though launched from a catapult. Once she has the listener's attention, she fires off a traversal of the aria 'Furie terribili' that leaves no doubt about the meaning of the text whether or not the ears into which her voice rockets understand Italian. Her subtler voicing of 'Molto voglio' is equally gripping, and she dominates Act Two with her scorching delivery of the accompagnato 'Dunque i lacci d'un volto' and aria 'Ah! crudel.' Strangely, her performance of the epic 'Vo' far guerra,' with which Armida duels with the harpsichord to bring down the curtain on Act Two, is tamer than it ought to be despite being very capably sung (and played by Nordstrand). Both Geier and Götz are at their respective bests in Armida's Act Three duetto with Argante, 'Al trionfo del nostro furore.' Soprano and baritone trade volleys of coloratura to stunning effect, proving that Händel's gift for ensemble writing was fully developed from the beginning of his London career.
Almirena was first sung by Isabella Girardeau, a soprano about whom little information survives. Likely born in Italy and married to a Frenchman, she is unknown to musical history prior to 1709 and, if her disappearance from the annals of critics and diarists is suitable evidence, seems to have retired from the stage in 1712. The sensational reception that greeted Almirena's music when Rinaldo was first performed suggests that Girardeau was at worst a very good singer and actress. In this Rinaldo, the only true flaw in soprano Marie Friederike Schöder's magnificently-sung Almirena is an occasional lessening of tonal quality at the very top of her range, where her intonation is sure but the voice is slightly wiry. She introduces herself in Act One with a confident 'Combatti da forte' that she follows with a mesmerizing 'Augelletti, che cantate.' Her trills are of the Sutherland and Sills class—perfectly-timed, textbook alternations of adjacent pitches. She and Geier blend their voices magically in the Act Two aria for the Serene, 'Il vostro maggio.' The climax of Almirena's musical journey is the ubiquitous sarabande 'Lascia ch'io pianga,' its lilting melody adapted from a dance in Händel's youthful Hamburg opera Almira. Schöder sings the aria with golden tone and understated expressivity, the intensity of the character's emotion heightened by the subtlety of her ornamentation of the da capo. Schöder sings 'Bel piacere' in Act Three with the grace of a ballerina. Grace is the hallmark of her performance as a whole, in fact: wholly free from mannerisms, both her singing and her vocal acting are extraordinary.
The barnstorming rôle of Rinaldo was composed for the admired castrato Nicolini (né Nicolo Grimaldi), also Händel's first Amadigi, and revised in 1731 for the world-famous Senesino. Countertenor Antonio Giovannini shares his illustrious predecessors' legendary agility and, if the opinions of their contemporaries are to be trusted, is as successful at using the voice as a weapon in musical contests of will. In Act One of this performance, Giovannini sings Rinaldo's aria 'Ogn' indugio' handsomely, and he and Schöder intertwine their voices seductively in the duetto 'Scherzano sul tuo volto.' 'Cara sposa' is one of Händel's grandest outpourings of despair in song, and the long melodic lines disclose the shortcomings of the countertenor's technique. His breath control is laudable, but the security that makes his bravura singing thrilling temporarily deserts him in the extended phrases of 'Cara sposa.' His 'Venti, turbini' is predictably heart-stopping, however. Giovannini and Geier rip through Rinaldo's duetto with Armida in Act Two, 'Fermati!' The aria 'Abbruccio, avvampo e fremo' is also sung with vigor. Giovannini contributes his best singing in Act Three, the aria 'È un incendio' dispatched with aplomb. In the break-neck 'Or la tromba,' he is in favored vocal territory. The coloratura is effortlessly but dizzyingly tossed off, and the voice rings out spectacularly. Rinaldo is not a rôle to be sung on a whim, and Giovannini's performance reflects earnest conscientiousness. There are better voicings of 'Cara sposa' on disc, but there are few more pulse-quickening, sincerely touching Rinaldos than Giovannini's.
In recent years, opera has been assaulted by virtually every conceivable idiocy of staging, many of which were perpetrated in the name of ensuring the genre's artistic and financial solvencies. What so many directors, production designers, and managers seemingly fail or refuse to understand is that, whatever the intention, devoting piles of money to putting stupidity upon the stage is, in a word, stupid. Shock has its place in opera, but the shock must be to the heart and mind, not to the ephemeral senses. This production of Rinaldo, strikingly original and beautifully filmed, shocks not with cheap sensationalism but with an abiding commitment by everyone involved with the production to faithfully but imaginatively expressing every sentiment with which the famously difficult but deeply sensitive Händel enveloped his music. If only this were commonplace! In truth, though, performances of this quality are not, have never been, and never will be ordinary.