Opera: Handel with care

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The Independent Culture

HANDEL'S FIRST opera for London - the first Italian opera composed specifically for the London stage - knew its audience almost as well as concert promoters know ours today. Sorcery and special effects (yes, they loved them then, too) drove the First Crusade plotline into such secondary insignificance that it might just as well have been happening - and for most of the time was happening - offstage. Then there were the Italian singers - and especially the sensational castrati. The title role of Rinaldo was a shameless vehicle for Nicolo Grimaldi ("Nicolini"), aria after aria custom-made to display his vocal and emotional range.

But the huge queue for returned tickets at the Barbican was not made up of spectacle-seekers (this was a concert performance - the plotline absurdities of Handel's "magic show" were happily consigned to our imagination), or indeed for the Rinaldo, David Daniels, the fabulous American countertenor, who rarely left the stage, but rather for the one Italian singer (and biggest "star") of the evening in a role of fleeting love interest and just four arias: Cecilia Bartoli. Ask me what is it about Bartoli that merits this adulation (apart from the hype, that is) and I will tell you that it is her - her warm countenance, her ability to confide in an audience, her absolute belief in the text. It's the words that make music for Bartoli. Now, more than ever, that the voice shows worrying signs of wear and tear, her singing is supported on the emotion more than the technique. Almirena's wonderful aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" was not so much sung as breathed on a sigh of remorse, the pianissimo of the da capo barely that. It was moving, it was beautiful, but not as singing. The flutter in the voice is now more pronounced, her age-old habit of "bouncing" the coloratura off the diaphragm, of aspirating the runs, is taking its toll, compromising her ability to sustain a seamless legato.

In that, David Daniels is supreme. His is surely the most natural, the most "complete" countertenor singing today. The opulence and wholeness of the sound (without breaks, without a whiff of artificiality over the entire range) is really quite something. But it's deployed with such artistry. "Cara Sposa" - arguably the most ravishing of all Handel's castrato arias, elevated and ennobled by its extraordinary string counterpoint - was singing unmatched all evening. Alright, so maybe he lacks the punch, the cutting- edge for the bravura numbers (it is, no question, a "womanly" sound) - still I'll sacrifice a little excitement for beauty.

The Daniels sound and star-quality was thrown into startling relief by the second countertenor of the evening - Daniel Taylor (Eustazio) - a very promising young artist, his singing elegant and well-nuanced but more evidently the countertenor (as opposed to male alto) sound we've become accustomed to. As the sorceress Armida, Luba Orgonasova, bespectacled like a schoolmarm at a formal function (big laugh as she drags off the heroine like an errant pupil) spun many a stylish phrase; as did Bernarda Fink's Goffreda - poised and concentrated in her big final act aria. And there was a big-voiced and charismatic Argante, King of Jerusalem from Gerald Finley.

Resourceful playing from the Academy of Ancient Music gave full rein to Handel's elaborate orchestral effects from airy birdsong to martial trumpets (four of them upstanding) and drums, though I could not help but think that the amazing Andrew Manze, leading very much from the front, generated more energy from his body language and thrilling violin pyrotechnics than anything communicated by the conductor Christopher Hogwood.

There is another performance of Rinaldo tonight at the Barbican (0171- 638 8891)