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3.8.09

Closing down Central City: 'Rinaldo'


Kathleen Kim (Armida), center, surrounded by her servants in Rinaldo, Central City Opera, 2009 (photo by Mark Kiryluk)
Central City may not be a destination for a long visit, other than for those who really enjoy gambling, but a day trip there to see an opera, from a more pleasant location like Boulder, is highly rewarding. That seemed to be the predominant type of visitor filling the house on Saturday afternoon for the final performance of Central City Opera's production of Rinaldo, and the difference in audience size with Thursday's performance of Lucia di Lammermoor was likely due to the greater ease of a day trip on a weekend. In a series of YouTube videos, artistic director Pelham Pearce and stage director Marc Astafan discussed the choice of Rinaldo for Central City's first Handel staging, appropriately programmed during the Handel anniversary year. Rinaldo was Handel's most successful opera, revived many times (including once during the composer's visit to Hanover) and racking up the greatest number of London performances (53) of any of Handel's operas (there are two major versions, 1711, HWV 7a, and 1731, HWV 7b). It has such effective and memorable music, both for the singers and for the orchestra, that it quickly became one of the most popular of the composer's operas among modern audiences, too.

Giacomo Rossi wrote the libretto, building on a scenario devised by the Queen's Theater impresario Aaron Hill. The story is based, very loosely, on the love story of Armida and Rinaldo from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (translated in English as Jerusalem Delivered). Among the many changes are the addition of Goffredo's daughter, Almirena, with whom Rinaldo is in love; the addition of the villain, Argante, who is in love with Armida; and the lieto fine, by which Almirena and Rinaldo are reunited and Argante and Armida are together converted to Christianity. It was Handel's first opera in London, premiered at the Queen's Theater in 1711, so Handel recycled a substantial amount of his earlier music, unknown to London audiences at that point. Its wild success with audiences, along with Handel's many dazzling performances as keyboard virtuoso, sealed his reputation in London.



David Walker (Goffredo) and Claire Kuttler (Donna) in Rinaldo, Central City Opera, 2009 (photo by Mark Kiryluk)
Handel insisted on the best, most spectacular scenery and stage machinery for the London production, contributing to Aaron Hill's financial woes, which eventually led the impresario to be fired by the theater between the second and third performances of the opera. Pelham Pearce spoke on those YouTube videos about entrusting the Central City Opera production to Marc Astafan because he could stage it in a way that was true to overblown Baroque style without breaking the company's limited budget. Astafan's production did just that, for the most part, remaining rather minimalistic as far as set pieces (scenic design by Caleb Wertenbaker) -- just how many different things can he do with a revolving double staircase, one wonders -- but creating memorable stage effects for the magical scenes, such as Armida's grand entrance flown in on a sort of dragon chair, lit with dramatic, warm colors (lighting by David Martin Jacques). Astafan kept the story in its original setting, the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century, but also preserved something of Tasso's fabulizing tone with exotic costumes for the Saracens that were perhaps a little too Ming the Merciless (costume design by Sarah Jean Tosetti).

The hits of the cast were on the Ming side, with Kathleen Kim's Armida made memorable by blazing high notes and a malevolent stage presence, although the solidity of her runs seemed at times to come at the expense of rushing ahead of the orchestra. Baritone Joshua Hopkins was even more impressive as Argante, with equally nimble melismatic smoothness and a roaring tone that matched his grand entrance, carried on a litter by four attendants. The role of Goffredo, created by Handel as a trouser role for contralto Francesca Vanini-Boschi, was here given to the remarkable countertenor David Walker, who so impressed me in Jonathan Dove's Tobias and the Angel and has had good and less good turns in Handel. In Conan braids and a ridiculous golden codpiece, Walker seemed slightly off vocally, with registers not quite linked together smoothly and some odd production.



Phyllis Pancella (Rinaldo) in Rinaldo, Central City Opera, 2009 (photo by Mark Kiryluk)
Less noteworthy but still good was the somewhat swallowed, small sound of Phyllis Pancella's Rinaldo, a part created for the stunning abilities of alto castrato Nicolo Grimaldi, or Nicolini. Pancella did not have a tone gorgeous enough or breath support strong enough to carry off the endless legato of the famous Cara sposa, which Handel reportedly told John Hawkins was the finest aria he had ever composed (along with Ombra cara from Radamisto). Her runs were pretty solid in Venti, turbini, although the tempo never quite settled into place with the orchestra (although the bassoon runs were athletic). Pancella was at her prime in Or la tromba, matching her vocal acrobatics and embellishments with the four equally impressive trumpets. Megan Hart showed great promise in the part of Almirena, revealing a prominent voice that could hold its own (at her best in a sweet, unaffected Lascia ch'io pianga), but with enough sloppy execution, especially coming at the end of the festival run, that showed a want of experience. Once again, promising apprentice singers were rewarded with supporting roles.

Some of the best musical experiences came from the pit, such as the virtuosic harpsichord solo in Vo' far guerra. Originally improvised by Handel himself (the score has only some blank measures marked "Cembalo," to mark the places where the composer did his thing), the harpsichord solo is given in a modern reconstruction in the Hallische Handel edition, edited by David R. Kimbell. All such reconstructions are based on a version of the improvisations published in the 18th century by Walsh, according to what Handel provided him, although it is unlikely that the wily Handel would give away his best tricks. For the famous birdsong aria, Augeletti che cantate, the three recorder parts were ably played, mostly doubled, as in Handel's time, by the other wind players (and, here, by one violist!). Although it seemed odd not to have any visual image of birds in this aria, it is important to remember that Addison, writing in The Spectator about the London production, ridiculed the use of live sparrows that escaped and flew all over the theater, making entrances in the wrong scenes and so on. The strings had a generally luscious sound, with an especially unified and lush ensemble violin tone.


Other Articles:

Kyle MacMillan, A spellbinding staging of "Rinaldo" (Denver Post, July 14)

---, Opera has a crush on Handel (Denver Post, July 5)

Wes Blomster, Central City Opera review: getting a handle on Handel (Daily Camera, July 13)
Although there was a theorbist in the pit, who doubled on Baroque guitar at some points, the recitative realization was left to the harpsichord, which was lively if somewhat monotonous. Some interesting percussion touches were added, from thunder effects to the oriental sounds of the sirens' song in Act II. For some reason, Astafan included a heavy-handed silent scene after the opera's final chords, which showed Rinaldo surveying the corpses left from a well-choreographed battle scene (fights choreographed by Andrew Kenneth Moss) and ostentatiously laying down his sword ("U.S. out of Afghanistan," as read on placards carried by anti-war protesters in Boulder earlier in the day). Matthew Halls, the harpsichordist who took over as director of the King's Consort (after Robert King resigned in disgrace, sentenced to prison time for indecent assaults on teenage singers), was at the podium for his first American performances. Halls seemed to have an excellent rapport with the musicians in the pit, who stayed remarkably unified and with his beat at all times, but had a more difficult time keeping some of the singers on track. This was certainly not the best Handel opera to come under review, but that is in itself a testament to the progress the composer's operas have made, in that we have reviewed so many of them recently. Even after 250 years, Handel can still fill an opera theater.

Make your plans for a visit to Central City Opera next summer, a program that will again follow Pelham Pearce's formula for the company: one chestnut (Puccini's Madama Butterfly), one unusual work (Jake Heggie's new opera Three Decembers), and -- de gustibus non est disputandum -- something Broadway.

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