We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Randall Scotting, Malia Bendi Merad, Jennifer Peterson, Andrew Rader, Nicholas Tamagna, Christine Arand, and Franco Pomponi

Whose music but Handel's could keep us attentive in our seat for nearly four hours?  Whose performance but operamission's could bring the work of three centuries ago to modern life?

Rinaldo was Handel's first opera for the London stage and was written in 1711. Although the public flocked to see it, the critics did what critics do--they found fault.  What a nerve to foist Italian opera on the British!  Indeed!  Just think--if it were written today the critics would be harping on the fact that the subject matter was anti-Islam!

The story of Rinaldo was loosely adapted from parts of the Tasso epic  Gerusalemme liberata and takes place during the First Crusade. The eponymous hero is in the process of liberating Jerusalem from the Saracens, after which he will win the hand of Almirena, daughter of the Captain General Goffredo.

His protagonist Argante, the Saracen King, is not an evil guy, just guilty of belonging to the other side.  Argante is in love with the sorceress Armida who abducts Almirena to have power over the enemy.

The plot is far simpler that that of many other Handel operas. Armida falls for Rinaldo and tries to seduce him and trick him with magic. Argante falls for Almirena. It all works out in the end.  Jerusalem is liberated and Argante and Armida convert to Christianity!  Imagine that being written in today's politically correct environment!

The early 18th c. was famous for its elaborate stagecraft and one can only imagine how they created flying chariots, disappearing mountains, black clouds enveloping people, and switched identities. Last night's concert version did not have to concern itself with such challenges but rather focused on the luscious music, with one melody tumbling out over another.

The early 18th c. was also famous for its castrati and fortunately we no longer have to shudder over that instance of barbarism. Happily we had four countertenors onstage and were able to appreciate the different sizes and weights of their voices.

As the eponymous hero we had Randall Scotting whose instrument was the most sizable of the four--but never lacking in flexibility for the elaborate embellishments so beloved of Handel and of us as well.

Goffredo was sung by Nicholas Tamagna who had the lightest voice of the four. He seemed a bit timid in Act I with a reedy tone but by Act II he found his footing and delivered his best work in a most committed delivery of "Mio cor, che mi sai dir?". The musicality of his phrasing was most evident.

Somewhere in the middle was Andrew Rader who took the role of Eustazio, Goffredo's brother. We liked him best in "Sorge nel petto" and was impressed by the musicality of his phrasing in "Siam prossimi al porto".

The fourth countertenor Biraj Barkakaty sang the small role of a Christian magician and we enjoyed his "Andate, o forti" which was accompanied by bass and cello.

The sopranos also had very different voices and one could readily distinguish them by their radically different colors. As Almirena, we heard Malia Bendi Merad, a petite woman with a voice that managed to be firm while conveying youth and sweetness. Her aria accompanied by the haut-bois was gorgeously embellished. Her duet with Rinaldo in the garden had the most exquisite harmonies. 

As the fiery sorceress one could not have asked for a better interpreter than the glamorous and stately Christine Arand. It was difficult to believe that she needed any magic whatsoever to seduce Rinaldo! During her delivery of "Furie Terribili" we kept thinking "Queen of the Night" and was surprised to learn that said role is not in her bio.

Baritone Franco Pomponi, the lone low voice in the opera, has a powerful stage presence and seems to be able to create all kinds of characterological shifts.  His aria "Sibillar gli angui d'Aletto" showed his warlike side;  but his tender aria "Vieni, o cara a consolarmi" let us know that Argante was not such a bad fellow.  Accompanied by the solo violin of concertmaster Abigail Karr, it left us breathless, especially in the stunning diminuendo.

Thanks to our attendance at so many Salon/Sanctuary concerts, our familiarity with baroque instruments is growing and we have come to love the soft sounds of the woodwinds. Although the string sections were superb, our attention was riveted by the beautiful haut-bois (baroque oboes), the baroque bassoons, and the baroque valveless trumpets which announced the battles.

In the garden scene, there was a trio of recorders, including the tiny sopranino, and if any instruments ever did better at creating birdsong, we have yet to hear them.  That was just one of several outstanding musical moments.

Aside from the garden scene and the marches written for the battle scene, it rarely seemed as if Handel wrote music expressly to advance the story. Many of the arias were likely borrowed from other operas. 

There was not a single aria that wasn't melodic to the "n"th degree but there were two that stood out as more memorable than the rest, perhaps because we had studied them.

Mr. Scotting sang Rinaldo's lament "Cara  sposa, amante cara" with such great pathos and dynamic control that tears threatened to spring from our eyes.

Imprisoned in Armida's magical garden in Act II, Ms. Merad sang Almirena's lament "Lascia ch'io pianga mia cruda sorte" to similar effect.  We do so love Handel's largo laments! The embellishments were marvelously over the top.

Finally, we were dazzled by the harpsichord solo of Patrick Jones at the end of Act II,  although we have no idea whether the wild flights and torrents of sound involved any improvisation or Handel had it all written down in the score. 

The work closed with a harmonically rich ensemble that delighted us and sent us out smiling.

The evening was conducted by Jennifer Peterson herself from the harpsichord and a splendid evening it was!

© meche kroop

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