Following Orlando in 2016 and Ariodante last May, The English Concert, directed from the harpsichord by Harry Bicket, brought Rinaldo of 1711 to the Barbican for the final instalment in its series of Handel operas. The piece recently featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics for being one of London’s first operas to be successfully performed in the Italian style and language, and for its ground-breaking special effects. Although one might argue that there were none of these in this concert performance, in another sense the ‘thunder and lighting, illuminations and fireworks’ were all there, being rendered so effectively by the music that nothing else was needed.
The orchestral output was strong from start to finish. The playing revealed superlative precision, clarity and balance, and yet there was something just a little more sumptuous about the sound than is achieved by many ensembles whose focus is equally strong. The playing felt free flowing so that while the rhythmic drive was excellent, the sense of forward momentum did not feel obvious because the pace felt so natural and unforced. The recorder playing during the Overture was extremely vibrant and bright and in ‘Augelletti, che cantate’ really did sound like bird song. At the end of Act II, Tom Foster on the second harpsichord indulged in some witty improvisation. It was clever because at times he made it sound as if he were only just keeping up with his own music, but all this was calculated to create a sense of edge and mystique as if Armida were mustering forces of evil in her pursuit of vengeance. Evocative in the extreme, the fact that other phrases were produced with infinite smoothness proved just how much the section as a whole was thought through to have maximum impact.
The staging was simple, but no less effective for that. The fact that The English Concert, at little over twenty players, seemed huddled in the middle of the stage with clear space surrounding it, meant that the soloists had sufficient room to move around and express themselves. Principals sat at the sides if they were ‘offstage’ for short periods, but generally left the stage altogether when not required so that our focus was always on those who were important to the scene. The staging also incorporated the musical elements directly so that the trumpets stood below the stage to ‘accompany’ the Herald in Act I, and then came onto it for Argante’s ‘grand entrance’.
The majority of soloists carried scores but no-one was glued to theirs and the presence of just two music stands at the front of the stage actually had a beneficial effect. As the singers frequently moved away from them it gave a sense of just how far they were removing themselves from a single spot, which made their performances feel particularly free and expressive. The fact that the movement reached its zenith simply by having Goffredo, Eustazio and the Sorceror walk around the back of the orchestra as they climbed the mountain to the palace revealed just how light the stagecraft was, but that was in many ways the making of the performance. It was also a nice touch to see the Sorceror ‘magically’ produce a wand from his score.
The superb cast was headed by Iestyn Davies, who also played the title role in 2014 in the first revival of Robert Carsen’s production for Glyndebourne Festival Opera. The sheer quality of his sound was matched by extremely high levels of precision and control in his phrasing, and when he sang ‘Cara sposa, amante cara’ his eyes revealed the total sense of emptiness that he felt with Almirena gone. As Eustazio, Jakub Józef Orliński’s own countertenor had a looser quality, and was equally beautiful in different ways so that the two contrasting timbres worked very well together. Sasha Cooke’s mezzo-soprano was exquisitely rounded and ensured that Goffredo’s arias were delivered with a certain sumptuousness and complete sense of ease.
Luca Pisaroni totally commanded the stage as Argante, with his forceful bass-baritone being aesthetically pleasing, and also quite sensitive on those occasions when it was required to be. Jane Archibald’s beautiful soprano helped us to see how Armida’s sorrow in ‘Vo far Guerra’ demonstrated both the hyperbolic reaction of one so unused to not getting her own way, and the genuine need she had to be wanted and loved. As Almirena, Joélle Harvey revealed an immensely sweet soprano, and her performance of ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ was characterised by a profound stillness (from both her and Pisaroni as Argante listened, feeling ashamed) that led us to focus on every note and syllable. Owen Willetts also played his part to the full as the Herald and Magician.
The audience clearly appreciated what it had just witnessed, giving the performers the type of reception more normally reserved for rock stars and Barenboim Ring Cycles. This concert was not actually part of the London Handel Festival, but it undoubtedly put everyone in the mood for the month-long celebration of the composer that commences next week.
For details of all its forthcoming events visit The English Concert website.