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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Rinaldo, Opera in 3 Acts, HWV 7a [137:00]
Antonio Giovannini (Rinaldo)
Gesche Geier (Armida)
Friederike Schöder (Almirena)
Florian Götz (Argante)
Yosemeh Adjei (Goffredo)
Owen Willetts (Eustazio)
Cornelius Uhle (Mago Cristiano)
Lautten Compagney Berlin, Wolfgang Katschner (musical director)
Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli, Eugenio Monti Colla (director)
rec. 2014, Ludwigsburg Palace Theatre
Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD 5.0. Picture format 16:9. Subtitles: GB, DE. Region: Worldwide
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108125 Blu-ray [147 mins]

Here is an opera performance with a difference. The characters on stage are each represented by puppets, and the opera singers we hear are unseen, standing with the instrumentalists in the pit or to the side and above the stage. The booklet and other publicity for this issue firmly nails its colours to the mast:

Early music and an old craft – the charm of the stage and marionettes are unified in a spectacular performance of Handel’s magic opera Rinaldo by the Lautten Compagney, conducted by baroque specialist Wolfgang Katschner, and the puppet theatre Carlo Colla e Figli.

The staging showcases the long Italian marionette tradition, and since the puppet theatre Carlo Colla e Figli of Milan has been performing for more than two hundred years, we can assume what we see is pretty authentic. The German baroque singing and playing tradition has its own claim to authenticity of course, and what we hear is courtesy of the prestigious Lautten Compagney of Berlin. This instrumental ensemble was co-founded in 1984 by Wolfgang Katschner, who is now the principal conductor and leads the performance here. Handel’s operas are a particular specialism of the group, and it sounds like it.

The best place to start is the bonus feature, which is a ten-minute film, “The Making of Rinaldo”. The brief interviews with conductor Wolfgang Katschner and Pierro Corbella of the Carlo Colla & Figli company are illuminating, as is back-stage footage showing the locations of the singers, and something of the puppeteers working the marionettes. The key observation comes from the conductor, to the effect that a magical opera like Rinaldo—think sorcerers, mermaids, dragons, and transformations—can be more effectively realised by a puppet theatre tradition than by realistic theatre.

So we get the sorceress Armida entering as prescribed in the libretto on a chariot drawn by two dragons. Effects like that and the elaborate sets with painted flats recall the baroque theatre of Handel’s London, and the spectacle which was part of Rinaldo’s success in 1711. Of course it adds an extra dimension of unreality to the principal one of opera that characters do not speak but sing. Here the characters are also not flesh and blood, but wooden puppets, albeit ones capable of fairly complex movements, individually and in ensemble, without quite losing losing the familiar jerkiness. With this opera, and maybe with the artificialities of any baroque opera seria, it actually works, as the enthusiastic audience response suggests.

The filming is very effective too. The whole stage is often kept in shot (of course it a smaller stage than the norm, for large but not life-size puppets), with some closer focus on the figures, unafraid to show some details of how their movements are controlled in response to the music. We even see the puppeteer’s hands on occasion. There are also shots of conductor, singers and players at times, but this is no distraction but rather a reminder that we are watching a live performance. And it is quite appropriate that for Rinaldo’s final triumphant number we see the four trumpets Handel adds to the score. It is fun too to see the curtain calls, with each singer taking a joint bow hand-in-hand with the puppeteer for their character. No puppet takes a bow, but that might have been pushing the illusion too far.

None of this would matter if the musical side of things was not well worth hearing, but fortunately it is. The cast is a strong one. Giovannini’s is a fine counter-tenor sound, just right for the noble Rinaldo. He is equally effective in the stirring coloratura of “Venti, turbini” as in the dreamily tender “Cara sposa”. Gesche Geier is a fine and fiery sorceress Armida, and Friederike Schöder a languid and affecting Almirena. Florian Götz, the only low voice to be heard, makes the most of Argante’s music, and so does Yosemeh Adjei in the rather passive role of Goffredo. The cast generally would grace many an opera house mounting Handel’s operas. The predominance of the counter-tenor voice is hard to avoid of course, so that several characters sound rather similar. The band is excellent and the various instrumental solos very well done. I tired of the extra percussive effects added to Handel’s score, but I could at least hear why they were thought necessary. Wolfgang Katschner directs with admirable verve and freshness throughout.

The blu-ray disc has a fine sound and picture, and the package also includes the complete audio recording of this Rinaldo on two CDs. It makes a very good audio account of a live performance, though it could not stand up to a studio recording like that of Hogwood on Decca, and not only because of Hogwood’s starry cast (Bartoli, Fink, Daniels, Finley). There is also the fact that the Decca has three CDs and contains about forty minutes more music, not least because of the da capo repeats that it includes but this Lautten Compagney live performance omits. So really this Arthaus issue is a special case, and a record of a really fascinating performing occasion. As such it is a very valuable document, and offers intriguing viewing and excellent listening.

Roy Westbrook



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