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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The Irish conductor Kevin Mallon offers a totally refreshing account of Rinaldo, Handel’s opera about the crusading knight whom the sorceress, Armida, attempts to seduce. Mallon opts for the first version of the score, even though Handel later added alternative numbers. Following that decision, he has women instead of counter-tenors for the castrato roles of Rinaldo and Eustazio, giving the small castrato role of the magician, Mago, to a bass. The cast is made up of fresh, youthful-sounding singers, none of them strikingly characterful but all stylish, with clean, fresh voices and immaculate techniques. Despite the dictates of period performance Mallon takes the most famous number, the aria Lascia ch’io pianga, exceptionally slowly, allowing the excellent soprano Laura Whalen to ornament the reprise with great delicacy. Vivid, open sound. An excellent bargain, despite the lack of a full libretto.

Hugh Canning
Opera, May 2006

Naxos's Rinaldo enters a competitive if not exactly crowded market. None of the vocal team is a household name-even in Baroque specialist households- but Kimberley Barber (Rinaldo) and Barbara Hannigan (Armida) have both appeared with ENO. Barber's solid but somewhat lacklustre tone is no match for David Daniels and Vivica Genaux on the rival Hogwood (Decca) and Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi) sets, but Hannigan's Arnlida and her partner in villainy, Sean Watson's Argante, give the more 'international' Rinaldos a run for their money: both are dazzling in their big bravura numbers and I'm sure they must have brought the house down in concert with their brilliant singing of the duet, 'Al trionfo dell nostro furore' , a rare sparring of soprano and bass voices in Handel, superbly dispatched here. If the other singers are more modest, they contribute to an enjoyable performance, conducted without artifice and mannerism by Kevin Mallon (whose lightly sprung, unselfconscious way with the music may prove the set's most bankable selling point). You don't get a libretto ­though you can download the Italian text from Naxos's website-but the detailed synopsis also (usefully) identifies the sources of the numbers in what for Handel was essentially a pasticcio. It says a lot for this set that the performance demonstrates exactly why Rinaldo was such a sensation in London in 1711-as a 'compilation' opera, it was clearly Handel's Mamma Mia, packed with tried and trusted hits. Even if you have Hogwood or.Jacobs,or both, this Rinaldo is worth a spin at Naxos's bargain price.

Brian Robins

For Naxos to undertake a complete recording of one of Handel's most vocally demanding operas was a bold move indeed. When the opera in question brings them into competition with star-studded opposition in the shape of recordings by Christopher Hogwood and Rene Jacobs, it might be considered one step beyond boldness. Those sets, with detailed introductions to Rinaldo, were dealt with comprehensively by Bernard Jacobson and me in, respectively, Fanfare 24:4 and 27: I, easily accessible for those interested via Fanfare's online Archive, if the relevant issues are not at hand. And while on the subject of the www, if you buy this new Naxos you can download a copy of the original Italian libretto from their Web site; there is no English translation, although the booklet does have a synopsis.

Kevin Mallon's recording of Handel's first London opera stems from performances given in association with the Toronto-based Opera in Concert, an organization devoted to covering "a stylistic gamut of rarely performed operatic repertoire." Well, in the present case I guess that may be true of North America, though it hardly is of Europe, where Rinaldo is one of Handel's more frequently performed operas. Here, it is given in its usual complete from, which is to say that Eustazio's act II "Scorta rea," and Goffredo's "Sola del brando," both of which were cut by Handel before the first performance (but included by Hogwood), are omitted.

I've had plenty of good things to say about the Kevin Mallon discs that have to date come my way, but despite the obvious integrity of the performance, there's little here to praise, I'm afraid. Dramatically, for reasons discussed in my review of the Hogwood set, Rinaldo is one of Handel's weaker operas, being largely dependent for success in performance on two crucial elements: vocal brilliance and spectacular scenic effects. The latter is obviously not applicable in an audio recording (though we get even more sound effects here than on the rival recordings), placing even greater onus on singers and conductor to ensure that Handel's score emerges with all its scintillating youthful fresh­ness and vigor. That is precisely what does not happen here, and I fear the fault lies largely with Mallon's direction, which is hampered by tempos that frequently drag, and stolid, earthbound rhythms. Even in quicker numbers, there is a kind of all-purpose forward momentum allowing for little inflection or nuance. Just as bad is the treatment of secco recitative, which is performed in the style of 17th­century recitative cantando, something closer to arioso. As a result, it often seems interminable, with any illusion that the characters are actually communicating with each other reserved for very few moments. This is a facet of 18th-century opera to which many listeners (and critics) pay little attention, but as Alan Curtis has convincingly proved, it makes a huge difference to dramatic veracity.

Few, if any, of Mallon's cast will be widely known, so it would be pleasing to report that there is a hitherto hidden star among the names. There isn't. Judging from the biographical notes, none have made a specialty of Baroque opera, and despite some moderately pleasing voices, that is the impression conveyed. Excessive vibrato rules in practically every case, as does an inability to produce disciplined cantabile-singing or cleanly articulated fioritura. The Armida of Barbara Hannigan is an exception, but the voice is so lightweight, so soubrette-like as to convey little of the character of the passionate, emotional spitfire. The bass Sean Watson also impresses as Armida's would-be lover Argante, but after also giving due credit to the Aradia Ensemble for some excellent playing, that's about it, I'm afraid. If you caught this performance well presented in a provincial opera house, you'd probably feel you'd had your money's worth, allowing for some longueurs that might have left you longing for an interval and the bar. As a recording, it is simply not remotely competitive with either the Hogwood or the Jacobs, despite their weaknesses, Naxos's excellent sound, and the substantial price advantage.

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