Harmonia mundi HMC 901796.98
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2003.
Rinaldo: Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano
Almirena: Miah Persson, soprano
Armida: Inga Kalna, soprano
Goffredo: Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor
Argante: James Rutherford
Mago cristiano, Araldo: Dominique Visse, countertenor
Eustazio: Christophe Dumaux
Freiburger Barockorchester (on period instruments)
Conductor: René Jacobs
This recording of Handel’s first Italian opera composed for London is, as is often the case with René Jacobs’s records, definitely something special, indeed strange. As with Hogwood’s recent recording, this contains the original 1711 version, although Jacobs has made several very personal choices. Most of these are explained in his booklet essay. Some of Jacobs’s decisions were made due to the absence of staging when you listen to a record, and therefore he decided to compensate for this lack of visual stimulation. Thus Jacobs attempts to illustrate some stage directions, for example by adding instrumental preludes to two scenes, or using strange sound effects: the weird noises during the recitative preceding Armida’s aria “Vo far guerra” sound like something from Pierre Henry experimental music or from the soundtrack of the first Star Trek series, and are supposed to illustrate heavy … silences (!). What can be said of the squalling intervention of the mermaid at the end of “Il tricerbero umiliato” or the use of castanets in “Il vostro maggio” (Act II scene 3)? In Nigel Lowery’s staged production these fitted the visual action quite well, but even then it resembled a bad fairground show, and their resurgence here is useless.
Jacobs’s intentions sometimes appear praiseworthy, but his justification that they compensate for the lack of a visual dimension is hardly convincing as almost all those adaptations were already used during the fully staged performances that were also conducted by Jacobs. This lack of trust in the recording’s audience is quite surprising, not least because anyone is able to read the stage directions written in the libretto. Often the historical relevance of Jacobs’s choices is quite erratic. However, the use of music by William Babell is one of Jacobs’s most interesting decisions. Considering the harpsichordist played in Handel’s orchestra (but he played several instruments) and wrote keyboard adaptations of several arias from Rinaldo, Jacobs decided to make several changes inspired by Babell’s arrangements. The use of Babell’s music as a source of inspiration for ornaments and variations or even for the harpsichord candenzas in Armida’s “Vo far guerra” (Act II scene 10) is one of the more relevant elements of Jacobs’s approach. Far worse is the addition of a continuo part in arias that Handel specifically indicated should be played “senza bassi” (e.g. Goffredo’s “No, no, quest’alma”, Act I scene 3; Almirena’s “Bel piacere”, Act III scene 7). This is complete nonsense, and even though a rich continuo definitely enables efficient effects, the parsimonious use of an organ is totally unhistorical here.
Fortunately, a recording is not to be considered only from historical and musicological perspectives. After the listener is warned that this allegedly historically informed recording could actually make him a historically disinformed listener, the performance will give him many pleasures. To sing Almirena after Cecilia Bartoli could have seemed a terrible challenge for any singer, but Miah Persson’s performance is excellent and much denser than it was on stage, and she also demonstrates that this part better fits her voice than Bartoli’s. Vivica Genaux’s case is quite different: her embodiment is much more convincing too than it was on stage, and her voice fits certainly the role more comfortably than it did David Daniels’s. But Genaux definitely lacks the emotional intensity which is such an impressive part of the American countertenor’s voice. Despite Genaux’s tone being too nasal, and her need to take too many breaths, her singing is often excellent and her involvement is undeniable. Yet her performance is fundamentally admirable rather than particularly moving, even if her “Cara sposa” (Act I scene 7) is fine. Inga Kalna does take risks, and sometimes hovers close to the razor’s edge, but she is ultimately an ideal Armida, singing with beautiful colours in her voice that are too rarely heard in this role. The secondary parts are well served, particularly Christophe Dumaux’s Eustazio.
It is worth noting that this recording features very interesting da capos; even if they are not always especially spectacular, they tend to be really exciting and stylish. On one hand, Jacobs’s preference to adopt steady speeds for Handel’s fast tempo markings enables such da capos, but with the disadvantage that several allegro arias are too close too andante or even larghetto. Thus Argante seems particularly resigned in “Vieni o cara” (Act I scene 4), the sirens sound very restrained (“Il vostro maggio”, Act II scene 3). Rinaldo’s finale aria “Or la tromba” (Act III scene 9) is not devoid of solemnity but dramatically flat, and Rinaldo doesn’t seem at all in a hurry to join the battle. However, whatever the tempos are, the sumptuous Freiburger Barockorchester contributes prominently to the theatricality and efficiency of the performance. Many more aspects of this recording could (or should) be discussed, but the whole performance is mostly enjoyable: this is a brilliant, well-balanced, beautiful, and highly debatable recording of Handel’s Rinaldo as reinterpreted by René Jacobs.
© Phlippe Gelinaud - March 2003
Photos from the Stage Performance:
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