Opera seria in 3 acts
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Libretto: Aaron Hill and Giacomo Rossi
First performed: Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, 2 February 1711; revised King’s Theatre, Haymarket, 6 April 1731
Rinaldo was Handel’s first opera written for England, and, indeed, the first Italian opera composed for London. It capitalized (so to speak) on the British public’s enthusiasm for the artform since Boconcini’s Trionfo di Camilla triumphed in 1706.
Impresario Aaron Hill, manager of the Queen’s Theatre, engaged Handel, Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, the future George I, to compose an opera.
Letting Handel work in England was, Keates suggests, good propaganda; “the presence in London of a talented young German composer … especially one with the necessary savoir faire to make himself agreeable to persons of influence in court and government circles” would be “advantageous”.
Hill’s scenario was based on Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (familiar on this blog from Lully’s Armide and Campra’s Tancrède), with verses by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi. It was spectacle with a side-helping of spectacle: the great castrato Nicolini in the title role; two sorcerers; Christian and Muslim armies; hundreds of horses; dragons; monsters; enchanted islands; magical transformations; “Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations, and Fireworks” – and a garden full of live sparrows.
“There have been so many Flights of them let loose in this Opera,” Addison observed in the Spectator, “that it is feared the House will never get rid of them; and that in other Plays, they may make their Entrance in very wrong and improper Scenes, so as to be seen flying in a Lady’s Bed-Chamber, or perching upon a King’s Throne; besides the Inconveniences which the Heads of the Audience may sometimes suffer from them.”
The British public loved it. Rinaldo was performed 15 times within a year, surviving Hill’s arrest for bankruptcy, then staged every year until 1717. It was revised in 1731, then forgotten until 1933.
For all its spectacle, it’s markedly less engaging than Agrippina. Heroism after Tasso is simply less interesting than Roman history; this is magic opera, where character matters less than spectacle. Addison, though, believed spectacle was the point of opera; “its only Design is to gratify the Senses, and keep up an indolent Attention in the Audience”.
For the modern listener, too, the opera confirms our worst prejudices about Handelian opera: wonderful arias pasted into a lackluster plot. Rinaldo is more of a pastiche than an opera proper; Handel produced the work in a fortnight, by recycling material from Agrippina and his cantatas. Even enthusiasts have misgivings. Keates says that it’s “hardly to be compared as a unified dramatic organism with such later masterpieces as Rinaldo or Orlando” (don’t judge Handel by this effort), and that the music, while “a string of magnificent arias”, “never seems wholly involved with the text”. Kaminski dismisses the libretto (not worth Agrippina’s, by far; it’s clumsy and drags), but the motley patchwork is irresistible, thanks to the richly inventive music.
The opera contains “Lascia ch’io pianga” and “Or la tromba”, two of Handel’s most famous pieces. Impressive, too, are Argante’s grand entrance aria “Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto”; he appears in a triumphal, horse-drawn chariot, followed by a huge number of footguards and riders. Armida also sings her dramatic entrance aria “Furie terribili” in a chariot, this one flying through the air, pulled by fire-breathing dragons. The virtuoso castrato aria “Venti, turbini” closes the first act. The second act ends with a bizarre harpsichord duet that would give Beecham hives.
Vivica Genaux (Rinaldo), Miah Persson (Almirena), Inga Kalna (Armida), Lawrence Zazzo (Goffredo), James Rutherford (Argante), Christophe Dumaux (Eustazio), and Dominique Visse (Christian Sorcerer), with the Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by René Jacobs, Berlin, 2003. Harmonia Mundi.
- Edward Blakeman, The Faber Pocket Guide to Handel, Faber & Faber, 2009
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and His Music, Pimlico, rev. 2008