Pinchgut Opera 2023 Review: Rinaldo

By Gordon Williams
(Photo: Cassandra Hannagan)

The enthusiastic reaction of the audience on opening night for Pinchgut Opera’s latest production of Handel’s 1711 opera, “Rinaldo,” makes it easy to understand why this opera was so popular at the time of its premiere 312 years ago.

It is also important to bear in mind how operatic productions back then would have boasted a lot of spectacle. “The Machines and Decorations,” in the words of Pinchgut’s conductor, Erin Helyard, writing in the program booklet, bestowed “so great a Beauty” on opera productions of the time.

Helyard’s program note was quoting the impresario, Aaron Hill, who originally commissioned the work. Pinchgut’s contemporary audience responded to a staging which suited modern tastes. It was less diverting visually, but arguably more effective, showcasing the enduring qualities of Handel’s music.

Simpler Theater

This was the sort of theatrically-effective, but spare production, one expects from Pinchgut Opera in Sydney’s Angel Place Recital Hall, a venue much less ornate than a baroque proscenium theater.

American-German director Louisa Muller’s conception had changed since 2020 when the production was first mooted. Since then, she has shed her “cynicism.” What did this mean in this context? That “Rinaldo” now presents itself as an opportunity to conjure delight in a contemporary fairy tale that blurs the line between modern and medieval?

Simone Romaniuk’s economical set provided great clarity to the various relationships. Occasionally impressing with a clever bit of business as when Rinaldo, performed by British counter-tenor Jake Arditti, and Goffredo, performed by American counter-tenor Randall Scotting, rowed close to the reaches of the sirens, Bonnie de la Hunty and Olivia Payne, in their search for the missing Almirena. Goffredo rolled a canvas hull before him as if standing in the bow while Rinaldo behind him “rowed.” The set for the most part provided an unfussy frame for the music, though the floral displays of Part one in Scene five provided stunning visual complement to one of Handel’s coups of orchestration – the emulation, by recorders, of little birds singing to accompany soprano-lead Almirena’s aria, “Augelletti, che cantate.”

This was simple theater, but it elucidated basic beats of the plot as well as relationships. The darkened left-hand half of the stage backed by bewitching mirrors served as a perfect visual stepping off point for Australian bass Adrian Tamburini, as the villain Argante, leader of the army opposing Goffredo and Rinaldo who will abduct Almirena. His “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto” (All around I hear the hissing of Alecto’s serpents) was a powerful musical statement.

Giacomo Rossi’s libretto for “Rinaldo” is leaner than that of Thomas Corneille for “Médée,” Pinchgut’s end-of-year production in 2022, but part of the fun of reading it, surely, is measuring just how vast an extra dimension Handel’s music adds to Rossi’s simple lines.

Richess & Wit

Under Helyard, Pinchgut’s regular ensemble, The Orchestra of the Antipodes, made much of the richness, wit and punctuating variety of the score. A listener’s ears might prick up at the strumming pointed entrance of Simon Martyn-Ellis’s baroque guitar or the runs played in tandem from one side of the orchestra to another. There was impressive communication, coordination, between stage and orchestra. In fact, so close was the relationship between performers on stage and in the pit, that it sometimes felt as if the orchestral instruments were colored extensions of the characters. Harpsichord flourishes occasionally came across as dissolves between scenes, but Helyard treated the audience to a pure musical spectacle in his virtuoso exposition of the extensive harpsichord toccatas interjecting as sorceress Armida, performed by Australian soprano Emma Pearson, threatened war in the rhythmically tricky “Vo’ far guerra.”

In the title role was British counter-tenor Jake Arditti, who offered convincing testimony to how this high male tessitura could plausibly represent authority in baroque opera. There was great power in his delivery, but also moments of tenderness. He is the romantic lead! The vibrato he added to the strings’ senza vibrato at the beginning of his big number “Cara sposa,” wondering where Almirena has gone, seemed to speak with great poignancy.

Australian soprano Alexandra Oomens was a gutsy Almirena. Who could be surprised when she tried on her father Goffredo’s armor in the beginning, as the protagonists awaited battle? But there was a wonderful stillness to the opening of her plea for freedom, “Lascia chi’o pianga,” after being abducted by Argante, who has fallen in love with her! Some ornamentation is expected in the repeat of a Da Capo aria, but though there seemed to be more involved decoration toward the end, Oomen’s arguably sparing decoration suited the piercing simplicity of her rendering, which garnered deserved applause.

There is another counter-tenor in “Rinaldo” and as Goffredo, Randall Scotting convincingly conveyed his age and rank. Emma Pearson as the sorceress Armida, who causes the swapping of identities which creates most of the incident of the second half, stunned from her full-bodied entrance.

Australian bass, Adrian Tamburini as Argante, general of the army opposing Rinaldo and Goffredo, impressed with his Scene two aria, “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto,” but there was a palpable battle-worn weariness in his appealing “Vieni o cara.” It is Argante who proposes the three-day truce in which the events of the opera take place. In fact, these two moments of Tamburini’s might make great showreel material.

Pinchgut is the first Australian company to win an International Opera Award, in 2019, for Best Rediscovered Work – Hasse’s “Artaserse.” There is scholarship in their productions. Indeed, the program booklet for “Rinaldo,” and their other productions, detailed the provenance of the musicians’ instruments. Leader Matthew Greco played a Hopf violin of 1760, for instance, Simon Martyn-Ellis played a baroque guitar made in 2011 by Marcus Wesche of Bremen, while oboist, Amy Power, doubling on sopranino recorder played her superb solo, the birdsong during ‘Augeletti,’ on a Shigeharu Hirao-Yamaoka instrument modeled after a 17th century ‘Denner.’

But the scholarship is always worn lightly, and the result is theatrically effective.

Possessing fewer, perhaps, of the “delightful Prospects” that gave equal pleasure to the eye in 18th century theater, this “Rinaldo” nevertheless showed one what was needed to be seen from the action, while proving how much “Rinaldo” could simply be listened to and how much there is to enjoy in Handel’s music. Listeners across Australia will get the chance to share the privilege that was the Sydney audience’s when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation transmits the recording of the production.


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