Luca Pisaroni and Joélle Harvey in 'Rinaldo'
Luca Pisaroni and Joélle Harvey in 'Rinaldo' © Robert Workman

It is hard to see Rinaldo without thinking of Glyndebourne’s production a few years ago. That came to a climax with a band of pigtailed schoolgirls blowing up the chemistry lab. Did Handel envisage that? Of course not, but then his original scenario is hardly less ludicrous.

It can be no surprise that concert performances of Handel’s operas have become popular. There was a full house for this latest instalment in the English Concert’s annual series of Handel operas. As before, Rinaldo is being taken on a short international tour, ending at Carnegie Hall in New York.

In all the venues the opera is being performed in strict concert form — no acting, no props (except for a Harry Potter wand). The plot of Rinaldo is set during the crusades and involves a sorceress trying to whip up trouble by getting Christians and Muslims falling in love with the wrong people. It is a lot of nonsense, but that did not bother audiences in 1711, who loved its theatrical effects, the mermaids, flying machines and a flock of live sparrows.

Now we sit reverentially in awe of the music, which includes some of Handel’s best. The English Concert and Harry Bicket, its artistic director, are as lively as any of the period bands. Bicket’s Handel sits satisfyingly midway between the delicate Baroque playing of some and gutsy, driving rhythms at the opposite extreme.

The casting of the lead roles has been the clinching factor of their Handel opera series. The title role here was taken by Iestyn Davies, a countertenor notable for the beauty of his voice, though he also summoned up some swashbuckling coloratura. Jane Archibald sang the sorceress Armida, magicking up an array of extra top notes that Handel did not write. There was good-quality singing, if less personality, from Sasha Cooke as Goffredo, Joélle Harvey as a touching Almirena and the pure-toned, young countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Eustazio. On a bigger scale, Luca Pisaroni invested the Saracen king Argante with dramatic force.

In the opera’s final minutes a totally unbelievable twist sees the Muslims convert to Christianity, delivering a happy ending, Baroque-style. Glyndebourne’s marauding schoolgirls were no more farcical than that.

★★★★☆

barbican.org.uk

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