Opera Lombardia 2018-19 Review: Rinaldo

Handel’s Masterwork Goes To The Strip Club In High-Quality Musical Performance

By Alan Neilson

Brescia shares its opera season with a number of other cities in Italy’s Lombardia region, courtesy of the touring company, Opera Lombardia, and if the quality of its recent production of Handel’s “Rinaldo” is representative, then it certainly does not suffer from the arrangement.

Boasting a quality young cast, including the highly respected French contralto, Delphine Galou, and two singers who are rapidly building international reputations for themselves in Francesca Aspromonte and Raffaele Pè, , this was an energetic, imaginative, and musically satisfying presentation under the direction Ottavio Dantone, conducting the Accademia Bizantina.

An “Everyman” Rinaldo

The director, Jacopo Spirei, updated the work from the 11th century to the present day, and removed any trace of the original location and its religious conflict, whilst attempting to remain faithful to the competing dynamics and deeper lying themes of the drama. So rather than a religious clash between Christians and Muslims over the city of Jerusalem, the reading centers on Rinaldo’s personal struggle to overcome his shortcomings to reach, his as yet undiscovered potential, his own personal Jerusalem.

He is presented as an average person, an everyman, an office worker, who through a series of strange events is forced to discover his inner strengths. However, rather than presenting a coherent, well-grounded presentation, Spirei had to hide behind the label of “magic-realism” to cover over inconsistencies in his superimposed narrative.

Some of his ideas were excellent, such as portraying Armida as the owner of a nightclub called “The Spider,” with its connection to drugs, alcohol and violence, which aligned nicely with the hedonistic pleasures, which she offers as Queen of the dark arts.

Other ideas were more difficult to reconcile. Goffredo’s role for example was ill-defined and gave rise to confusion rather than clarity; bursting into Rinaldo’s office, dressed in a military uniform, he confronts Argante, but over what exactly? Is he a business owner at war against another businessman? It is not clear. It was this constant shifting between well-thought through ideas with the not so good which made it difficult to fully engage with Spirei’s reading. Nevertheless, the production had a pleasing momentum, with plenty of stage action, and so always held the audience’s attention.

The scenographer, Mauro Tinti, was imaginative with his designs. The nightclub scenes, inside and outside, were well-constructed, appealing and added to the narrative in a clear unambiguous way, and the creation of a giant spider, which dominated the stage, was inspired, giving form to the magical aspects of the work, while at the same time symbolizing the ease with which a person can easily become trapped within its web, thus preventing them from fulfilling their potential.

The office scenes, on the other hand, were miserably drab, a deliberate decision to represent the stultifying and dead-end existence of life in such an environment. However, it offered a confusing background to the narrative; Rinaldo and Goffredo’s noble sentiments, full of allusions to heroism and courage or Argante’s talk of a truce between nations, sat awkwardly in a cheap rundown portacabin.

The pastoral glade in which Almirena and Rinaldo meet was presented as an oasis of peace. It was a vertical semi-circular grassy scene in which trees stuck out at right angles. It was nicely contrasted to the to the dull office and hedonistic nightclub scenes, and reflected the inherent decency of Amirena’s character. The lighting, designed by Marco Alba, was sensitively constructed and successfully helped define the scenes; unsurprisingly, the nightclub was notably colorful, but it was particularly well done.

Costumes designed by Silvia Aymonino, were a haphazard mix, but generally of modern day design, fixed tightly to match their character: Rinaldo wears a dull grey suit, Almerina an understated dress, Armida an aggressive and sexualized leather outfit, Argante a strange artistically flamboyant kilt-type costume, and Goffredo an even stranger military uniform, reminiscent of a 1970s dictator.

A Problematic Portrayal

Delphine Galou’s portrayal of Rinaldo was problematic. Certainly, Galou possesses a pleasant sounding, colorful contralto with a good technique. It is agile and firm, with an attractive legato and coloratura. She sings with a great degree of intelligence, introduces a pleasing variety of embellishments and vocal inflections, and pays detailed attention to characterization.

But she did not fully convince in the role.

For a long stretch of the performance she is asked to portray Rinaldo as unheroic, which undoubtedly compromised her reading. But more problematic was the difficulty she had in projecting her voice, which occasionally failed to match the orchestra or other singers, and certainly did not have the heroic power associated with the role. This was particularly in evidence in her duet “Fermati” with Sarra’s Armida, in which she was notably second best. Moreover, it appeared that she was aware of the fact, and in attempting to compensate brought unsettling emphasis to her singing.

Growing & Growing

Francesca Aspromonte’s talents are becoming increasingly well-known, and her portrayal of the put-upon daughter of Goffredo, Almirena, provided yet further evidence of the expressive and attractive qualities of her voice. Although the role is not particularly interesting, Aspromonte brought depth to the character through her fine vocal characterization. Moreover, Almirena contains two of the score’s most beautiful arias, “Augelletti che cantante,” and the famous, “Lascia ch’io pianga mia cruda sorte.” Both were beautifully sung; in the first she sits in her pastoral idyll and asks the birds where Rinaldo is; in the second she is Armida’s captive, and weeps over her imprisonment.

Aspromonte crafted her lines skillfully with delicate shadings and subtle ornamentations, her warm voice embraced each word with care, and successfully brought both arias to life, infused with deep, but delicately drawn emotions.

Anna Maria Sarra as Armida made a powerful entrance, dressed in black leather with long spider-like claws, with a mop of green hair, surrounded by three spider-like women. Against the driving sound of the orchestra, she presented a forceful rendition of her short aria, “Furie terribili,” in which she showed off the agility of her coloratura. Act two is dominated by her confrontations with Rinaldo and Argante, in which she also takes time out to deliver a brutal and vicious beating to Almirena.

As Sarra moved between anger and rage, inner sadness and revenge, her ability to deliver carefully phrased and well-projected recitatives, enabled her to capture her emotional instability. In her aria, “Vo’ far guerra, e vincer voglio,” having just seen Argante betray her, she swears revenge; coloring her voice with aggression, she darts up and down the scale in an energetic coloratura display, delivering an emphatic and expressive rendition. It was a well-paced, well-sung performance, one in which Sarra displayed an ability to develop her character in line with the changing nature of the drama.

Another Major Star On the Rise

Raffaele Pè is a singer whose star is certainly in the ascendency at the moment. Having recently released a highly acclaimed CD of baroque arias devoted to the character of Giulio Cesare, he has also been receiving excellent reviews for his stage performances.

As Goffredo, Pè created an compelling portrait, combining intelligent acting and vocal sincerity in an expressive performance. It is not just Pè’s fine technique or the attractive qualities of the voice which made his performance so successful, but his ability to use them in characterizing his role. Recitatives and arias were delivered with close attention to the wording, creating emotionally sensitive readings.

His opening aria, “Sovra balze scoscese e pungenti,” laid down the standard from which he did not falter. The marvelous versatility of his technique, the beauty of voice, the graceful and elegant ornaments and the variety of vocal coloring were all on display in a powerful rendition.

Luigi De Donato was an impetuous and aggressive Argante, and produced a committed, full-blooded performance. The voice has a pleasing timbre, and De Donato displayed skill in varying delivery and embellishing the vocal line. It was a strong performance, although he occasionally lost focus during recitatives.

Federico Benetti played the Mago cristiano as down and out, who hung around outside the “The Spider” nightclub, offering advice and baseball bats to solve the crusaders’ problems. It was an amusing touch and worked well. Benetti’s bass has pleasing timbre, which he used effectively in the small role.

The soprano, Anna Bessi, dressed as a nightclub diva, played out her minor role as the Donna with style, and made the most of the part.

Ottavio Dantone, conducting from the harpsichord, produced a subtle and detailed performance from the Accademia Bizantina orchestra, capturing the beautiful colorful textures of Handel’s score. Dynamic and rhythmic variations were always nicely controlled, and a sensitive balance was maintained between the stage and the pit. However, it was the bright glow and lightness of touch which Dantone elicited from the orchestra which defined the performance.

If not a perfect performance of “Rinaldo,” this was a production with so much to admire. The staging had its dubious moments, but overall did enough to keep the audience involved, and if the logic behind the unfolding drama was not always clear, it is no more than one can expect when the director decides to embark upon a “magic realistic” presentation, and some of the mise-en-scene were more than enough to compensate. It was, however, the musical side that really impressed, in a splendidly sung presentation, supported by an orchestra in good form.


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