Great moments in opera: Rinaldo

December 9, 2009

If this little series of posts were called “Great operas” I would not be inclined to include Handel.  His operas, like most baroque operas, are long-winded and dramatically lame.  But since the theme is “Great moments in opera”, small-scale glories are enough to raise an opera to our notice, and Handel produced small-scale glories in abundance.

The opera for this week is Rinaldo.  It was the first opera that Handel wrote and produced when he went to London in 1711, and he certainly wanted to make a good impression.  He had no trouble making a big impression: Rinaldo is over 3 hours long.  The story is based on Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, the libretto having been adapted first from the original Italian into English, and then again from English back into Italian.  (London audiences of the time apparently had no appetite for anything but opera in Italian.)   Tasso’s epic, you will recall, recounts the conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, and this is the theme of the opera as well.  Rinaldo is the greatest of the Christian warriors, and, though the contrived and torturous convolutions of the opera’s plot would be impossible to summarize in short compass, it is essentially concerned with Rinaldo’s unhealthy romance with Armida, an Islamic sorceress.  The story is faithful to Tasso’s original insofar as fantasy and magic are central to it.  In the end, the Saracens are conquered and are baptized as Christians.  In other words, a happy ending.

The opera is dotted with lovely arias, as one would expect from Handel.  The lead role was written for a castrato, specimens of which are now all too rare, and so the part is normally sung instead by a soprano or counter-tenor.  (I listened to this recording in which Rinaldo is sung by a soprano, Vivica Genaux.)  A few years ago a film was made about the life of Farinelli, one of the greatest of the castrati, and it included a number of sung arias, including, conveniently enough, two from Rinaldo.  They are “Venti, turbini” (“Tempests, whirlwinds”) and “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me weep”).  They are both sung in the clip below (with the second aria beginning at about 3:10).  Note the strange costuming, which I assume is intended to be authentic to the period.  The voice here, in an attempt to reproduce the unique qualities of the castrato voice, is an electronic amalgam of soprano and counter-tenor.  I apologize for the violence in these scenes; I’d have chosen different ones had it been possible.

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