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Posted October 1, 2010
This is a magnificent recording with an absolute dream cast. Despite its historical context within the late 11th century battles between the Crusades and the Saracens, Handel's "Rinaldo", written in the early 18th century, is actually a fanciful tale of love, devotion and betrayal populated by kings and warriors, fair maidens and sorcerers. It has all the elements of a great period action movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. You need a real vocal swashbuckler in the title role, and countertenor David Daniels is ideally suited with a rarefied voice that is alternately heroic and romantic. With his stunning coloratura and dramatic intensity, it would be hard to imagine anyone better as the conflicted Christian hero Rinaldo, who can lead an entire army to take Jerusalem but still have trouble taking his true love Almirena away from the hands of evil magicians. Daniels is particularly convincing with the music that reflects his deep love for her, in particular, with Rinaldo's famous lament, "Cara sposa, amante cara, dove sei?'. The beauty of his timbre really flows out of him almost effortlessly, and provides proof positive that his is a special talent. As great as he is here, Daniels actually surpassed this performance two years later in David Alden's audacious update of the opera, staged in Munich in 2001 and luckily captured on DVD two years later (also strongly recommended). While not the most ideal interpreter of Handel, superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli displays her supreme technique as Almirena. Her style is famously full of dramatic fire, but one gets the sense that a more plaintive manner would be more appropriate for such a lovelorn character. I kept thinking she could have been better cast as the sorceress Armida were it as an important a role. At times, her presence is so overwhelming that she singes some of the more openly yearning arias with her bravura technique and amazing range. Ironically though, she and the more delicately toned Daniels meld together perfectly on their brief duets, notably "Scherzano sul tuo volto", and she certainly delivers the goods on the sonorous "Lascia ch'io pianga", likely the most definitive recorded version on the market now. In a "pants" role, i.e., a female playing a male, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink convincingly plays the Christian army general Goffredo, who almost acts like the chorus for all the action. Although the role is a bit passive, she lends a beautiful tone to all her pieces. Soprano Luba Orgonasova plays Armida, a sorceress that requires a singer to convey a concurrent sense of sensuality and melodrama, especially as she seduces and then falls in love with the stalwart Rinaldo. She falls a bit short though not at the sacrifice of communicating the fury of feelings which cause her change of heart. Quite impressive is baritone Gerald Finley, who is pitch perfect and provides clear diction as Argante, the King of Jerusalem. Perhaps because his voice is so dramatically deeper than anyone else's in the cast, he fully captures the dominating presence of his character. Amazingly there are two other countertenors in this stellar cast, which just shows how versatile this voice type truly is. Bejun Mehta brings a velvety quality to his aria, "Andate, o forti, fra stragi e morti"; and Daniel Taylor, with his choirboy innocence, does as well as he can in the least interesting role of Goffredo's brother Eustazio, especially with the lovely "Siam prossimi al porto", which opens Act II. I love how characters will sing successive couplets culminating in some amazingly dulcet tones. Sound effects of thunder and battle and even simulations of birdsongs provide effective bridges between pieces and acts. Special praise should go to conductor Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music for the authentically dramatic sound of the period instruments. This is one of Handel's great early works, and we are
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