After 20-odd years of committed scholarship and practice in the field of baroque opera, the Pinchgut outfit now has such an easy conversation with the genre that it can afford not to take itself too seriously. The opening night of Rinaldo showed unmistakeably that baroque opera, even so-called opera seria, can be fun.
Real birdsong (from the birdcages in Angel Place?) supplemented the sopranino recorder to depict a pastoral scene. Vast artificial eyelashes at last find their rightful place, on the eyes of the sorceress Armida (Emma Pearson). The breastplates of Goffredo's army looked so like baby-carriers that Alexandra Oomens couldn't resist cuddling hers. And when the two villains of the piece, after declaring their bitter mutual hatred with cascades of impossible coloratura, in the space of two bars decided to make up and be friends, it drew laughs from the audience and even wry smiles from Adrian Tambourini (singing Argante) and Emma Pearson.
Handel was 26 when he wrote Rinaldo, and the music is redolent of youth. Bouncing with irrepressible energy, Erin Helyard, their director, coaxed the wonderful Orchestra of the Antipodes, playing as always on period instruments, to breathtaking speeds. He had coached the singers so well that their ridiculously virtuosic coloratura (all of them had these passages) took flight, as if free from gravity.
And yet it is always Handel's slow music that stays with you. Rinaldo's aria "Cara sposa" is one of the all-time greats, and Jake Arditti's golden countertenor sound suited it perfectly. Soprano Oomens, as Almirena, sang possibly Handel's most famous opera aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga" with a soft intensity that had the audience rapt, as if they had never heard it before. And Armida's aria, "Ah, crudel", with its plangent double suspensions in oboes and bassoons, and unexpected vocal entries, showed Emma Pearson's skill in imbuing her somewhat pantomime sorceress character with an improbable humanity.
The devil may not have the best tunes in Rinaldo, but in this production he had the best bass voice, in Adrian Tambourini, who held the audience in the palm of his throat with his rendering of Argante. Randall Scotting, like Arditti a countertenor, was assured and convincing as Goffredo. And the duet for the Sirens, sung by Bonnie de la Hunty and Olivia Payne, was a beautiful cameo, an ensemble among the stream of da capo arias.
In general I share Gluck's dislike of da capo arias. Yet in this production, not only were their second A sections ornamented with great taste and style by the singers, but they were also very cleverly directed. Luisa Miller (no, that's by Verdi, I must get her spelling right) Louisa Muller used these da capos skilfully to direct the action towards the next scene. This, coupled with either the whirlwind tempi or the melting lyricism of the music, magically avoided the stagnation of action which Gluck complained of.
Muller's use of mirrors for magic was another masterstroke of direction, spellbinding indeed. And using Almirena's red shawl as an economical sign of disguise worked really well too.
However, apart from Alexandra Oomens (who for me was the stand-out, especially in acting, among this stellar cast), all the singers seemed at first to be a little ill at ease with the tuning temperament used for this production. I wondered if they had had enough rehearsal time with the orchestra to get used to the Lambert temperament (no, I hadn’t heard of that either) some of whose minor thirds were just that much bigger than they are in equal temperament. However, I think in the upcoming performances that won't be a problem.
I must mention the swords. Even in the poster for the show, Arditti looks as if he's never held one before. One of Argante's henchmen knew how to handle his sword – the rest of the cast held them like hoses for watering the garden.
But that was all part of the fun! Rinaldo was a smash hit in London in 1711. Don't miss this production – you'll have a ball.
Pinchgut Opera presents
Director Louisa Muller
Venue: City Recital Hall, Sydney NSW
Dates: 30 Nov – 6 Dec 2023
Tickets: from $62