Premiering at Queen’s Theater in London’s Haymarket, Handel’s 1711 Rinaldo (HWV 7) was the first Italian opera composed for London audiences, and remained widely performed during the composer’s lifetime. Despite this, the work suffered a fallow period for more than 200 years, to be rediscovered and performed professionally only in the mid-20th century. In collaboration with New Vintage Baroque, the Boston Opera Collective premiered Rinaldo, the second production of its 2014-2015 season, in Back Bay’s Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology on Thursday evening (an interview with the stage directors Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Greg Smucker can be found here). Performances will continue throughout the weekend with two alternating casts.
Rinaldo takes as its subject a character from Torquato Tosso’s epic poem based on the First Crusade, La Gerusalemme liberata. In the hands of Handel’s librettist Giacomo Rossi (under the direction of Queen’s Theater manager Aaron Hill), the story of Rinaldo became elaborated to its current drama: the Crusaders Goffredo and Rinaldo, during a siege of Jerusalem, receive a request for a three-day truce from the opposing Saracen king Argante who meanwhile employs his lover, the sorceress Armida, to lure the hero Rinaldo from the battlefield. Unable to do so, Armida kidnaps his lover Almirena instead, drawing Rinaldo into a journey to retrieve her and—in the end—defeat Argante and claim Jerusalem for Christendom.
Despite its focus on war and love (not to mention the implicit holy war), BOC directors Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Greg Smucker suggest that Rinaldo “[…] isn’t a piece about one enemy annihilating one another; it is about facing the enemy, looking beyond our assumptions and recognizing our common humanity”. This underlying notion informs the staging of BOC’s production, which coalesces from and recedes into “common humanity” in its structure: plain-clothed performers saunter on a stage set with nothing but multiple coat-racks loaded with colorful costumes. During the overture, clothes are donned and characters assumed, and throughout the performance, there is a sense of play that pervades: the coat-racks play varied roles—from forest to weapons, at one point even transforming into Almirena’s prison; characters use various masks to play-act other characters, or slowly lose parts of their costume during more internal arias—almost as in a return to the human core at the heart of Rinaldo—most memorably in Armida’s poignant “Ah! crudel, il pianto mio” in which the sorceress realizes that her love is betrayed. These games only come to a close at the end when the actors take off their costumes in front of our eyes during the final chorus and return to their place as unmarked people.
BOC’s production cuts the nearly three-hour opera to a trim 90 minutes. Such a drastic re-working has the advantage of streamlining the story. Though this Rinaldo was draped in only 18 of Handel’s 42-50 original arias and ensemble pieces, it nonetheless felt fluid and compelling, maintaining the spirit of the lengthier version.
The performance fared well in the miniature replica of Symphony Hall at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, with the orchestra placed on stage, leaving the drama to take place on the floor. The auditorium (seating 160 at a maximum) placed the full house in an engaging and intimate proximity to the actors. Although the raised orchestra at times caused balance issues with soloists, it had the benefit of showcasing the nuanced New Vintage Baroque effectively. Led by Michael Sakir from the harpsichord, the NVB stripped Händel’s orchestration to a core five-piece string ensemble (two violins, viola, cello, and bass), accompanied by harpsichord, bassoon, and two oboes (which switched to endearing recorders during the first entr’acte). The ensemble imbued Händel’s score with vivid lightness and fluency.
Thursday’s cast was consistently strong, if but marred at times by over-zealous tempi: slower arias seemed unsettled, and faster movements, albeit thrilling, sometimes seemed to unduly tax the performers. Mezzo soprano Sophie Michaux, in the title role, was a clear highlight of the evening—originally conceived for an alto castrato, the role of Rinaldo is scored for a treacherously wide range. Michaux is as thrilling in her upper register as when she dips into a strange and wonderful baritone territory. As Armida, soprano Jessica Jacobs has a clear and bejeweled tone that manages exquisite precision in Händel’s treacherous melismae, and performed with vivid and memorable rage in “Furie terribili!”. Laura DellaFera, as Almirena, sang with a generous tone imbued with a shimmering vibrato; her sensitive interpretation of the innig “Lascia ch’io pianga” was deeply touching. Luke Scott in the role of Argante and Garry McLinn as Goffredo filled BFIT’s small auditorium with a consistent, warm sound, although–perhaps because of the placement on the floor—arias in the lower ranges seemed muddied, particularly with the faster tempi. With Garry McLinn appearing in both casts, the alternates will be (Almida) Elizabeth Kinder, (Almerida) Erin Merceruio Nelson, (Argante) Christina Pecce, and (Goffredo) Patrick McNally.