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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) and Leonardo LEO (1694-1744)
Rinaldo (Naples pasticcio version 1718) – Dramma per music in three Acts to a libretto by Aaron Hill, adapted by Giacomo Rossi and others
rec. Festival della Valle d’Itria, Martina Franca, Palazzo Ducale, Italy, July–August 2018
Orchestra La Scintilla/Fabio Luisi
Director: Giorgio Sangati
Video Director: Matteo Ricchetti
NTSC DVD All Regions. Dolby Digital 5.
DYNAMIC 37831 [2 DVDs: 216 mins]

Here is a fascinating curiosity. Listeners who are anything more than slightly acquainted with Handel’s operas will probably know that, like many composers in his time, he created a number of pasticcio or pastiche operas, in which pre-existing arias from his own or others’ works were stitched together make a new one. This version of Rinaldo is an example in reverse, in that one of Handel’s own compositions was taken as the starting point for a pasticcio compiled by somebody else, in this case Leonardo Leo, for Naples in 1718, seven years after the phenomenal success of the original opera in London.

To appreciate the form of the pasticcio requires the listener to forget later notions of artistic integrity and originality, and to engage instead with the entirely pragmatic attitude of composers who would adapt their own and others’ music for new uses. After all, nobody seems to deny that the B Minor Mass is a masterpiece despite constituting such a pastiche, just as Handel drew on a number of pre-existing pieces of his own for Rinaldo in the first place in 1711, and also then substantially revised it himself in 1731 with a number of newly written arias to accommodate different singers. Composers down to Mozart and Rossini would also write new arias for insertion into other composers’ operas.

If this pasticcio of Rinaldo seems in any way incongruous, it is perhaps because the original is one of a small number of all Baroque operas which has achieved a secure place in the repertoire in modern times, and so many of the arias are well known. Hearing them in a new setting, alongside generally less memorable and melodically striking arias by other composers, is disorienting. Of the 33 vocal numbers in the score, 12 are taken over from the 35 numbers of Handel’s original, in addition to the overture and final chorus.

Leo oversaw the whole project, and included some of his own music, including the marvellous quartet which closes Act II. But he also drew on arias, or deferred to the singers’ choice of favourite pieces, written by Gasparini, Orlandini, Porta, Bononcini, Vivaldi, and Sarro, apart from himself. The booklet notes by Giovanni Andrea Sechi explains his reconstruction of the work from the surviving libretto, and an only partially complete musical score at Longleat. As such it has been possible to identify the music for all but six numbers, and these latter, now unknown items have been replaced by arias with similar dramatic situations by Handel and other composers. A table in the notes helpfully sets this out, although it omits to mention that between numbers 8 and 9 comes the well-known ‘Augelletti, che cantate’ from the original opera, with its imitations of birdsong.

As this version of the opera was prepared to celebrate a recent victory of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI over the Ottomans, it is prefaced by a prologue eulogising his achievements. It also follows the Neapolitan custom of incorporating intermezzi between the Acts, as well as in the middle of Act III, which chart the comically amorous antics of two down to earth characters. In this case Nesso and Lesbina are the servant of Almirena and the confidante of Armida respectively, and so these episodes together bridge the gap between the two warring camps of the main opera, who are more viciously opposed to each other than in Handel’s original, as Armida is led off in chains to her death at the end. The music for the intermezzi has not been reconstructed by Sechi, but they are acted out with lively innuendo – though not lewdly – in spoken dialogue by Simone Tangolo and Valentina Cardinali.

The excitement for Handel aficionados prompted by this revival is sadly not really matched by Giorgio Sangati’s production. The appearance of some of the characters as rock stars of the past – Freddie Mercury, Elton John, David Bowie, and Gene Simmons for instance are embodied in the characters – might pique the viewer’s curiosity or incredulity, but the real point of this concept never emerges, and the booklet provides no answer either. Perhaps the element of magic and fantasy in this opera based on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, as the crusaders go off to the Holy Land in search of heroic adventures and encounter the wiles of the sorceress Armida instead, suggested to Sangati in some roundabout way the countercultural and outlandish demeanour of those rockers, and some similarity with the exuberance and emotionalism of Baroque theatre. It is certainly fun to watch, but no deeper or explicit connection between the two worlds appears to be drawn otherwise.

The long first Act is confined to much of the front portion of the stage with choreography restricted to generalised gestures rather than acting as such. ‘Augelletti, che cantate’ brings some cages onto the stage, but the lifeless wooden birds inside them present a rather underwhelming spectacle. The stage opens up more for Act II, which includes the single Spirit in the guise of a woman, in place of Handel’s multiple sirens, to sing a brisk and not particularly spell-binding account of ‘Il vostro maggio’ from a giant swan as though she were Lohengrin. But the set reverts to simple, static form with the raised platform to the rear, which allows some comings and goings over its staircases, and reveals a cave in Act III. The uncluttered stage does at least allow for the choreography of the singers to be more readily appreciated, particularly that of Armida who makes an impressively dramatic presence, particularly with her jerking movements which match the furtive steps of the music in her aria ‘Già sento oche al core’, and the sinister pizzicato of its middle section.

Fabio Luisi – a fine conductor of opera, but not particularly known for his engagement with the Baroque repertoire – directs an account of the score that is decent and solid rather than inspired. After a tedious start to the recording with two and half minutes of the orchestra’s tuning up whilst the credits appear on the screen, the overture is played in leisurely fashion, rather than with alacrity, and that generally remains the case throughout. That works for some arias but, needless to say, not for others. Without more detailed nuance and vitality in the articulation of phrases, the music sometimes lacks the necessary ‘lift’ which really brings the Baroque style to life, with its diversity and colour.

The singers are a mixed group, and perhaps sometimes held back from more sparkling displays of vocal virtuosity. Teresa Iervolino is a dependable Rinaldo, projecting authority and confidence, even when expressing sorrow or anguish. Furthermore it is particularly noteworthy that, in this pasticcio version of the opera’s first Act, he is given Goffredo’s aria ‘Mio cor, che mi sai dir’ from Handel’s Act II, and so sings in four consecutive numbers, three of them solo after a duet with Armida. Iervolino shows no fatigue during that sequence, and even at the end of a long evening she remains on riveting form in the last Act for an unsentimental but heart-stopping account of the moving ‘Lascia ch’io resti’ (i.e. the famous ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ of Handel’s original, with altered words) and the triumphant ‘Or la tromba’ at the climax.

As his sidekicks, Franciso Fernández-Rueda’s Goffredo is a real curate’s egg, sometimes reassuringly lithe and lyrical, but elsewhere tending to bellow his coloratura, even if that technique is difficult to carry off with precision and subtlety in the tenor range, whilst Dara Savinova sings crisply and forcefully as Eustazio, sometimes more than she needs to. Loriana Castellano presents a demure musical character for Almirena, with the quiet confidence of her encouragement to her lover, Rinaldo, in her first aria ‘Vanne, pugna combatti ancor’ and the sweet charm of her ‘Augelletti’.

Carmela Remigio projects well as Armida in some fearsome sequences, especially in her two Act I arias, and it is a pity that the music of her last aria by Leo – which is also the final one before the concluding chorus – is rather pedestrian. But she works hard to bring the part to alluring, menacing life, despite the uneven quality of her music. In the trouser role of Argante, Francesca Ascioti is ripe of tone, even sometimes raw, in a manner that is reminiscent of Sonia Prina, if sometimes somewhat foursquare in her delivery, as in the long melismas of ‘Tanto saro crudele’, where she also sounds too affable for her declaration of cruel intent in that aria. It is a pity that the composer of his aria ‘Nave son che fra due venti’ is unknown, as the Vivaldian vigour of its minor key ritornello is striking.

To sum up, Handelians will undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to hear this rarity but it is a pity that the production proves to be dramatically unrewarding.
Curtis Rogers

Armida – Carmela Remigio
Goffredo – Franciso Fernández-Rueda
Almirena – Loriana Castellano
Rinaldo – Teresa Iervolino
Argante – Francesca Ascioti
Eustazio – Dara Savinova
Lesbina – Valentina Cardinali
Nesso – Simone Tangolo
Argante’s Herald – Dielli Hoxha
Spirit in the guise of a woman – Kim-Lillian Strebel
Wiseman – Ana Victória Pitts
Child of the Prologue – Eliana Cantore

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