HANDEL; LEO Rinaldo (Premiere of the 1718 Naples version)
Extravagantly premiered at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1711, Rinaldo made Handel’s reputation in London and received more stagings, at home and abroad, than any other opera in his lifetime. At each revival the score was adapted to accommodate new singers. On the continent, especially, itinerant stars would often replace Handel’s original arias with arie di baule – calling cards that they carried around in their portofolios. So it was in Naples in 1718, when the young composer Leonardo Leo and a local librettist undertook a radical reworking of Rinaldo for performances celebrating the birthday of Emperor Charles VI. With barely a third of Handel’s music retained, the upshot was in effect a mix-and-match pasticcio. The royal occasion demanded a sycophantic prologue (spoken here by a child), while comic interludes were de rigueur for Neapolitan audiences. Leo himself provided the prologue and interludes (of which the music is lost), plus a handful of new arias. The rest of the music was filched from pretty well every Italian opera composer worth his salt, from Giuseppe Orlandini and Giovanni Porta to Vivaldi and Handel’s London rival Bononcini. Several numbers in this reconstruction by the Italian musicologist Giovanni Andrea Sechi are anonymous.
The original Rinaldo prioritised scenic spectacle – especially magic transformations – over dramatic coherence. Not surprisingly, the 1718 Naples pasticcio, recorded at the Valle d’Itria Festival in Martina Franca, is no less arbitrary. Giorgio Sangati’s staging, mixing (vaguely) 18th-century costumes, Venice carnival masks and modernist camp, is unpretentious and uncluttered. The substitute arias, often short-breathed, cannot rival Handel’s energy and melodic breadth, and a few outstay their welcome. But they are effective enough, if sometimes too tepid for character and situation. There’s a glaring incongruity in the final scene, for instance, where the condemned sorceress Armida – unrepentant in the Naples adaptation – rails against the Christians in a decorous Bononcini aria.
The 1718 cast included the Neapolitan castrato Nicolo Grimaldi (‘Nicolino’), who had sung the title-role for Handel, plus assorted contraltos in the roles of Rinaldo’s beloved Almirena (originally a soprano), the saracen king Argante and Goffredo’s brother Eustazio. Here Rinaldo is not taken by a countertenor – which would have provided more vocal variety – but by the contralto Teresa Iervolino. If her style and vibrant, almost fruity timbre seem better suited to later music, she is a powerful, involving presence, singing an impassioned ‘Cara sposa’ and deploying ringing top notes in a vehement ‘Mio cor’, originally composed for Goffredo. Rinaldo also appropriates Almirena’s famous sarabande aria ‘Lascia chi’io pianga’, to different words.
Cast as a contralto, Almirena here presents a more feisty figure than in Handel’s original. Armed with a formidable chest register, Lorania Castellano sings the role with spirit and subtlety. The Armida, Carmela Remigio, looks more comic than menacing in her mannered gestures, but brings plenty of vocal power and temperament to the part. I didn’t much care for the dry, monochrome tenor singing Goffredo or the over-the-top rasps and plunges from the Argante, here too much the pantomome villain. In the small role of Eustazio, Dara Savinova makes her mark with bright, incisive tone and an elegant sense of style.
Once or twice I thought the rhythms jogged too comfortably, with an over-weighted bass line. But on the whole Fabio Luisi judges tempo and character well and gets spruce playing from his band. As an entertaining snapshot of the 18th-century Italian opera business, complete with stylistic inconsistencies, this performance serves well enough. Just don’t expect more than a smattering of Handel.