In a sense, Rinaldo is at once Handel’s most familiar and unfamiliar opera: familiar because, as his lavish first stage work for London, it has been much written about both by modern historians and by the composer’s contemporaries; unfamiliar because the Handel opera revival of recent years has largely passed it by. Although there are numerous recordings of its two hit slow arias – ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Cara sposa’ – this is its first complete studio recording for over 20 years. It may not be Handel’s most dramatically effective work (Act 3 marks time rather), and its magic effects and transformation scenes no doubt make it a tricky prospect for opera companies, but in many ways its rich orchestration and impressive set-piece arias make it an opera ideal for recording. That much makes this release a welcome sight already; add the de luxe cast Decca has assembled for the purpose and it begins to look irresistible.
Top of the bill come David Daniels as the eponymous crusader knight and Cecilia Bartoli as his love Almirena. Daniels’ heart-stopping countertenor voice is one of the marvels of our age and hardly needs much further description from me. It is not big, and though he is technically untroubled by the virtuoso runs of the quicker arias, some may feel that it lacks some of the heroic power expected of a warrior; but there is an inner strength to it, and in the love music he is utterly convincing. In ‘Cara sposa’, his lament for the abducted Almirena, the milk and honey really flows and we know we are in the presence of something special. Bartoli is equally impressive in her own way, though I found her singing less well suited to Handel. Of course, she can deliver the most demanding music with almost frightening ease and force and, as ever, she throws herself into her role, but for all her show-stopping ability I could not help thinking that a more natural and unaffected style would have been more appropriate for arias such as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Augeletti che cantate’. Others may disagree.
The rest of the cast is almost unwaveringly strong. The role of the Christian commander Goffredo is not the most interesting in the opera, but the stoicism it principally demands is amply provided by the rock-solid Bernarda Fink, who nevertheless does not miss the chance to show her softer side in the reflective ‘Sorge ne petto’. Goffredo’s opposite number Argante, the ‘King of Jerusalem’, is portrayed with enormous relish by Gerald Finley, who blusters energetically, but also effectively puts across his clumsy stirrings of love for Almirena; and while from Luba Orgonasova a touch more of the melodramatics would not have hurt, she nevertheless communicates a similar conflict of hard and tender feelings as the fearsome sorceress Armida, Argante’s sidekick and lover who falls for Rinaldo. Slightly less technically secure or forceful than the others (which is hardly a criticism) is Daniel Taylor, but he does well enough with what is the opera’s least effective role as Goffredo’s brother Eustazio. The smaller parts are all well served.
Christopher Hogwood’s direction is typically neat and good-mannered. He is not, I dare say, a natural opera conductor – others may have found more magic in the enchanted gardens and more sensuality in the sirens who lure Rinaldo, and you sometimes get the feeling that he is rushing the singers at important moments – but he has an unerring sense of tempo in Handel and the opera as a whole is well paced. The Academy of Ancient Music play to a high standard, backed up by a startlingly virtuoso performance (by the tape editor?) on the Drottningholm thunder machine and by some genuine birdsong at the beginning of Act 2, recalling the fact that live birds were introduced into the theatre at the work’s premiere.
Competition for this recording consists of Jean-Claude Malgoire’s pioneering account from 1977, and from a performance recorded live under John Fisher at La Fenice in 1989. The latter is notable for having an impressive Marilyn Horne in the title-role, but little else; some 50 minutes of music have been cut, and the sound is, at its worst, ‘live’. The former is altogether a better piece of work – it features notable singing from, among others, Carolyn Watkinson as Rinaldo and Ileana Cotrubas as Almirena – but it suffers some less distinguished contributions lower down the cast, as well as from the effects of an ‘early’ baroque orchestra, and in general it treads a bit too carefully throughout. Decca’s newcomer may not be the last word on the opera, but for all-round standard of performance and production it currently wins hands down. This is an important Handel recording, and it will take some beating.'