Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Garden of Baroque Delights

Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)
Merkin Concert Hall
June 16, 2016

Rinaldo and Armida in the garden of earthly delights
Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)
For two nights only, in an unbridled labor of love, Operamission brought us a concert presentation of Handel’s Rinaldo, an opera in three acts based on Torquato Tasso’s late Renaissance epic La Gerusalemme liberata. Operamission founder and musical director Jennifer Peterson conducted from the harpsichord. Delivering a delectably serious evening of music, Peterson evinced a taut performance from her collaborators. There really wasn’t a weak link in the whole thing. The orchestra on Baroque period instruments glided through a commanding interpretation of the score and the singers were all top-notch, if not world-class talent. It was a night not to be missed.

Nicholas Tamagna as Goffredo
From the outset we are introduced to the fearless Christian general Goffredo sung by Nicholas Tamagna, the first of four countertenors featured over the course of the evening. With super agility he soared through his opening aria with forceful musicality. As befitting the forces of good, Tamagna’s Goffredo had a clarity and precision in which you could hear the clarion call of Christian purity that was at once piercing yet chestful. This is Baroque singing in all its glory.

Countertenor Andrew Rader, singing Eustazio, was even higher pitched than his countertenor counterparts (higher even than the soprano too, obviously). So far in the first sequences of Act I, Handel has planted us firmly in the aesthetic territory of the Baroque with its fetishistic embrace of the uppermost registers. Rader in his early exhortations to the Christian army was like a late spring rosé, fruity and delicious.

Franco Pomponi as Argante
Change of scene. Cue the regal music and… enter Argante, the Saracen King of Jerusalem, sung by Franco Pomponi with his manly baritone. After the three counter tenors and the soprano we met in the previous scene, Pomponi’s was the first truly masculine sonic presence of the evening. A monster. Red shirt, black suit, finally some manliness, replete with the brutality that often comes with it. Everything vibrates when he makes his entrance and bolts out his first aria: “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto.” This is Christian’s adversary and his first words resound with a reference to Turnus, the famous nemesis of the Trojan Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. We’re on the right track. This is Tasso with all of his intertexts intact. Pomponi has a broad toned, beefy sound, open, bloated, but powerful, especially surprisingly full in the upper registers. In his “Vieni, oh cara” aria in a subsequent scene, he ends with a plaintive drop that grounds his plea to his ally and lover Armida, whose help he seeks to enlist against the Christian threat.

Christine Arand as Armida
Soprano Christine Arand, as Armida, answers with some fiery music of her own. Arand strutted out in full possession of her every scene in a sleek black evening gown, sensual as a serpentine seductress. The libretto calls for her to enter on a chariot pulled by fire-breathing dragons like Medea (no precedent for this in the Tasso source material). Despite the lack of chariot and dragons, Arand was very sexy, a dangerous allure emanated from her every move. The music brightens when she changes the subject to Rinaldo and expresses her desire for him. Previously she was all evil, now she waxes rhetorically bright even frizzante, though still clad in her hip-hugging tight black dress. A real femme fatale.

Once Rinaldo and Almirena have been whisked away to a locus amoenus where they are to be distracted from the battlefield, delightful bird music kicks in. Almirena sings her arioso, “Augelletti che cantate” and the sound of birdsong takes flight in the orchestra, weaving in and out of soprano Malia Bendi Merad’s voice. The recorders and a virtuosic piccolo spread their wings truly savoring the playful indulgence Handel imbued in his musical characterization of this place of delight, a classic topos of the Renaissance chivalric epic that is not lost on Handel’s imagination and the orchestra rose to the occasion. This extended musical passage was pure joy.

Randall Scotting as Rinaldo
When Armida snatches Almirena from Rinaldo, he shifts gears into “Cara sposa, amante cara,” an aria of biting sadness. Poor Rinaldo. This is his Orpheus moment, pining for the return of his beloved with Almirena standing in for Eurydice. Randall Scotting in the role of Rinaldo lent this aria an emotionality that burst out into the space and pushed against the ceiling. Imbuing it with the confidence of familiarity, he gave it an iconicity that made it feel like a showpiece, as though we’ve been listening to it forever. Despite the fact that it is far from the most famous piece in the opera, Scotting showed that it was his night. He really shined as the Christian Achilles, Rinaldo.

The first violin and first bassoon killing it now. After Eustazio picks Rinaldo up and dusts him off with words of encouragement, the great Christian knight is suddenly swept away by a newfound confidence. He surges up on a wave of music that blows through the orchestra like a gust of wind: “Venti, turbini, prestate / le vostre ali a questo piè!” intones Rinaldo, bringing Act I to a close.

Malia Bendi Merad as Almirena
Act II brings us the really iconic compositions of the evening. It’s one of those pieces in the history of opera that most everyone will have encountered in one way or another. It has appeared in movies. It has been covered by pop stars. It has been endlessly anthologized. Yet we so very rarely have the pleasure of encountering it in its original context. It is one of those masterpieces that never fail to move you. Not only did I tear up virtually on impact of the first bars of the marvellous “Lascia ch’io pianga,” but most of the orchestra seemed to be genuinely moved too. Malia Bendi Merad gave us a stunningly vulnerable take on the aria inhabiting the all too familiar lines with a feeble, touching, emotional frailty that was utterly moving. It was also very tactfully conducted by Peterson who rarefied the mood of the orchestra by slowing the tempo down as the piece fades in and out with feeling before surging again into the final refrain that hit you like a punch in the gut while your were already down. It was a stunning moment – worth the price of admission tenfold. The audience seemed to be so enraptured that no one could bring themselves to applaud in fear of ruining the lingering sensation. I know that I wanted to savor it as long as I could.

Biraj Barkakaty as Mago
During his brief Act III appearance as the Mago, countertenor Biraj Barkakaty made his presence felt. He imbued his aria and concomitant recitative with a round, clear sound that rang through the hall to the sparse accompaniment of the harpsichord and cellos. His words of encouragement to the Christian army resound with crystalline conviction and hope.

This baroque repertory is a rare art. It is very impressive when a group of such young musicians are able to pull Handel off not only so successfully but really so captivatingly. All four of the countertenors in the cast absolutely devoured their melismas and owned their breathlessly Baroque coloratura lines. This is no easy feat.

Armida abandoned by Rinaldo
Tiepolo (1696-1770)
As with the other three Handel programs (this is the fourth in the series), Operamission’s Rinaldo was an act of musical and artistic generosity from start to finish. Suffice it to say, I’m eager to see what they come up with next. I'm ready for number five!

– Lui
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Torquato Tasso (1544-1595)