By George Frideric Handel. Libretto Giacomo Rossi. Pinchgut Opera. Conductor Erin Helyard. Director Louisa Muller. City Recital Hall, Sydney. 30 Nov – 6 Dec, 2023
Reviewed : 30 November, 2023*
Photo : Cassandra Hannagan

For twenty-two years Pinchgut Opera has “scoured the period from opera’s birth to its flowering in the Baroque” to offer different opera experiences to Sydney audiences.

Their production of Rinaldo not only realises that philosophy, but with war and devastation dominating our world, and the possibility of peace seeming so remote, Pinchgut and the maestro Handel bring us an opera that includes a cease fire, a truce, reconciliations, love … and, gratefully, no tragic deaths!

In his foreword to the program Artistic Director Erin Helyard writes elegantly of Handel’s “mastery with the art form” and his ability to “take the simplest of texts and imbue them with psychological depth and expressive nuance”. He describes Handel’s “keen theatrical sensibility … unerring aptitude for writing for the voice” and his “rich and interesting orchestral effects”.

Photo : Cassandra Hannagan

All of this is brilliantly evident in Rinaldo. The story is one of hope and the joy of love. The music is resoundingly beautiful – and once again Pinchgut has managed to bring exceptionally talented artists together to exemplify all the facets of Handel’s work that Helyard described.

The company has once again attracted a cast whose international experience is overwhelming – and an orchestra whose feel for the music is sure and deft. It is so lovely to hear the harpsichord (played by conductor Erin Helyard), the theorbo, the baroque guitar – and the recorder – play such important parts in creating the atmosphere of the opera.

Jake Arditti brings a wealth of experience to the part of Rinaldo – and an actor’s feeling for the role. Rinaldo is a heroic soldier, in an army led by Goffredo, performed by Randall Scotting. It is not often two counter tenors appear together and the opportunity to hear Arditti and Scotting singing together thrilled the audience.

Alexandra Oomens returns for her fifth Pinchgut production. She brings an exuberance and light to the role of Almirena, qualities that director Louisa Muller makes important to the whole production. Whilst ensuring the voices rule, Muller also pays attention to the characters. Rinaldo and Almirena are young lovers, and Muller allows them to be joyfully affectionate and playful – just as Handel’s interludes suggest.

Photo : Cassandra Hannagan

When Goffredo meets his rival Argante, performed by Adrian Tamburini, the music changes, bringing the contrast between counter tenor and bass to play. Both Scotting and Tamburini found that contrast and the special moments of harmony – especially those that resulted in a stay of fighting.

Argante’s lover, the powerful sorceress Armida breaks that harmony, by abducting Almirena. Emma Pearson delights as Armida, matching her musical variations with expressive gestures and choreography. Once again Muller finds the essence of the character Handel has built into his score. Armida’s ‘magic’ adds complications to the plot – resulting in two beautiful soprano solos which Oomens and Pearson perform brilliantly – to the resounding delight of the audience.

Photo : Cassandra Hannagan

Bonnie de la Hunty and Olivia Payne play sirens and Armida’s attendants, while Arvin Bhattacharya and Yusuf Can Nayir are skilfully strong as Agante’s guards.

Designer Simone Romaniuk uses steps, arches, doors and mirrors to give the illusion of depth and height to the Recital Hall stage. When Almirena is alone, happy that her father has promised her to Rinaldo, Romaniuk opens an arch to reveal a wall of flowers. That same arch opens in Act 2 to reveal Armida’s enchanted mirrored palace. Shiny doors on both sides of the stage reflect the action in fleeting moments of panic and despair.

Pinchgut’s production of Rinaldo excels in so many ways. The orchestration, the voices, the acting, the set, the contrasts – and the choice of an opera that is optimistic and exhilarating.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine