|Song Hee Lee, Eric van Heyningen, Jessica Niles, Karin Osbeck, Hyoyoung Kim, and Maggie Renée Valdman|
By a strange coincidence, just four days ago, we reviewed a presentation of Händel's earliest experiments in writing for the voice. How rapidly he honed his skills! No sooner had the tuneful overture to Rinaldo ended last night at Alice Tully Hall, than we became aware of how psychologically astute was his writing for the voice!
By the time he was in his mid-twenties, Händel was much in demand for the London stage and gave them Rinaldo, the first Italian opera created for that city. The reception was warm, just as the reception was last night when post-graduate students at Juilliard performed it alongside Juilliard 415.
Let it be said right away that the minimally staged production was magnificently sung and acted and that Juilliard's period instrument ensemble responded in a lively fashion to Maestro Nicholas McGegan's enthusiastic conducting--all hands, no baton--from the harpsichord.
There was a second harpsichord, played in dazzling fashion by Jacob Dassa. His extended solo absolutely changed our mind about the harpsichord, an instrument that we generally ignore but will no longer. It was one of the high points of the evening, occurring during Armida's Act II vengeance aria and, as cleverly directed by Ophelie Wolf, had the evil sorceress (singular soprano Jessica Niles) bursting with impatience as Mr. Dassa piled cadenza upon cadenza. She even lit up a cigarette (mock) which she shared with the musicians of Juilliard 415 in an hilarious show of boredom.
Special notice must be given to the three musicians playing recorder and oboe--Kelsey Burnham, Matthew Hudgens and Emily Ostrom. The soprano recorder reproduced bird calls to accompany Almirena as she languished in the sorceress' garden lamenting her lost love in "Lascia ch'io pianga", so effectively rendered by soprano Hyoyoung Kim with a purity of tone which soared up into the highest register.
Based upon Torquato Tasso's epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (as so many operas were) Giacomo Rossi's libretto gave us a fictional account of the First Crusade, an event to which is attributed much contemporary Muslim hostility toward Christianity. Christian knight Rinaldo loves Almirena, daughter of his general Goffredo and will be permitted to wed her once the Saracens have been conquered.
Argante, leader of the Saracens, needs help from his lover, the sorceress Armida. She captures Almirena and spirits her away. Then she lures Rinaldo to her lair, using Almirena as bait. She disguises herself as Almirena and fools Rinaldo briefly. But Argante also falls in love with Almirena who just wants her freedom.
It takes a lot of magical intervention to straighten things out and we can only imagine what kind of stagecraft was devised for the London production. As we understand, staging was quite inventive in early 18th c. London!
Each and every role was sung in fine Baroque style and was accompanied by effective acting. All the world loves a bad girl and Miss Niles' Armida was the baddest of the bad, using every fiber of her being to illustrate what Händel's music is telling us. We have reviewed Ms. Niles on a number of prior occasions but this character unleashed something highly exciting to which the audience responded with volleys of applause. The illusion of sorcery was magnified by her costume and makeup.
Exactly the opposite in appearance and demeanor was the innocent Almirena portrayed by the superb soprano Hyoyoung Kim who was new to us. Dressed in a sweet white dress, she was the image of innocence but used her soprano strength to rebuff the importuning of Argante. In her featured aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" her trills matched the warbling birds given voice by the recorder. The violins wept along with her.
The role of Argante, usually given to a bass, was portrayed effectively by baritone Erik van Heyningen who negotiated well the lower end of the register and was successful at lightening his voice for the romantic scenes whilst letting loose with more powerful vocalism when he was in warrior mode.
Mezzo-soprano Maggie Renée Valdman made a strong Goffredo, evincing a richly textured sound and masculine posture. Phrasing and breath control, as well as dynamics, made for a fine performance.
Mezzo-soprano Karin Osbeck invested the role of Rinaldo with sympathy and performed a lovely duet with Almirena as well as the mournful aria "Cara sposa" when she is spirited away.
We were delighted to see undergraduate Song Hee Lee in a small role as the woman who lures Rinaldo away. We noticed her talent a year ago in a freshman recital and noted her crystalline soprano which was put to good use last night. She created a seductive character that the audience enjoyed.
Act III relied heavily on the music since much of the staged action had to be eliminated. But we certainly did enjoy the reconciliation duet between Armida and Argante. The ending of the opera must have been gratifying for 18th c. audiences because Jerusalem gets "liberated" and the Saracens give up their evil ways and convert to Christianity. Wouldn't it be grand if the contemporary problems in Jerusalem could be so easily resolved!
© meche kroop