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March 11, 2011

Opera Vivente presents rarely heard version of Handel's 'Rinaldo'

Among Handel's numerous operas, "Rinaldo" ranks rather high.

Never mind that the first version in 1711 contains recycled portions of earlier works; the main thing is that it provided the composer's sensational operatic debut in London. And never mind that his 1731 revision of the score also contains older material. It's still a good show, still filled with attractive melodies and vivid orchestration.

The earlier edition is the one that has received the bulk of attention from opera and record companies. The 1731 "Rinaldo," apparently, has never been staged in this country. At least Opera Vivente hasn't been able to determine otherwise, so its production, which wraps up Saturday, has the extra bonus of a little history-making.

The flair of Handel's music goes a long way toward making up for a convoluted plot about Crusaders, sorcerers and thwarted love. This is an opera where the parts are perhaps greater than the whole; each aria, each scene has its own power.

Opera Vivente, directed by John Bown and provided a vivid abstract set by Thomas Bumblauskas, offers a fanciful, futuristic take on the piece. We're in a post-apocalyptic world here, where the characters ...

grasp at tschotchkes and whatnot that, I guess, somehow weren't destroyed by whatever happened over the ages (my favorites are the Etch a Sketch, Magic 8 Ball and nesting dolls that turn up along the way).

The opera's original issue of the Crusades is sort of still there in this staging; you'll see as many signs of the cross made in this "Rinaldo" as you would in "Suor Angelica." But the emphasis is more on the emotions of the characters trying to deal with romantic desires and magical threats to those desires.

Every now and then, with its Flash- Gordon-meets-Mad-Max-look (Melanie Clark designed the costumes), the production takes a questionable, even silly turn, but little harm is done. Having an audience laugh periodically isn't the worst thing that could happen to a very long, ordinarily non-comic Handel opera.

On Thursday night at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, countertenor Daniel Bubeck gave an impressive performance in the title role. His voice had an appealing, mezzo-ish darkness. It could turn hooty and a little harsh under pressure, but otherwise filled the hall with a vibrant sound, backed by elegant phrasing.

Speaking of mezzo quality, Rebecca Ringle, as Armida, delivered that in abundance. Her rich timbre and supple coloratura filled out the music admirably, while her acting fleshed out the character of the evil sorcerer quite nicely (her fun outfit made me think Cat Woman from Mars).

Douglas Dodson brought a mostly warm, well-controlled countertenor voice and a fine sense of Handelian style to the role of Argante. At her best, Leah Inger sang sweetly as Almirena; her ornamentation in the opera's most famous aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga," was particularly elegant.

Frederic Rey, as Goffredo, provided the best articulation of the evening (the opera is sung in Bowen's English translation). Jason Epps used his promising bass-baritone effectively as the Magician.

The small period instrument orchestra had a rocky start, struggling with intonation during the first act, but gradually settled in and delivered steady, expressive work for conductor Joseph Gascho.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:43 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


I was sorry to hear, Tim, that the Harmonious Blacksmith orchestra started weakly at the performance you attended. Hearing the piece at its closing performance, I was most struck by the cohesion of this orchestra (one advantage of not being a pick-up group), the flexibility of Gascho's conducting, and the brilliance of Handel's orchestration. This was the most musically accomplished Opera Vivente performance I have heard in a long time (and I kind of liked the weird staging too!).

I imagine the rainy conditions on Thursday had a role in the pitch problems, but the band was cookin'; by the end. And I do agree that this was definitely a 'most musically accomplished' performance. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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