Opera: The singing crusader rides again

THE FIRST Crusade is stalled, and Godfrey of Bouillon, Jerusalem's future king, is in the soup. Thwarted by stiff Saracen resistance, what he desperately needs is a young daredevil to break the deadlock. Happily his daughter, Almirena, is a stunner. Enter the hero, Rinaldo. Love at a glance. Affray. Christians 3, Islam 0.

Handel, Gluck, Weber and Dvork - not to mention Brahms - all span works from the tale of the peerless Rinaldo, the scheming Armida, or both. For Handel it proved a godsend: armed with a pithy libretto from the rising young impresario Aaron Hill, a punchy Italian translation, and a bevy of stage machinery, he took London's Haymarket by Lloyd Webber- like storm in 1711, before the Hanoverians even had a foothold.

Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music, currently celebrating their 25th season, are touring Rinaldo round Northern Europe in two bursts. They return next November with concert performances in Manchester and London; and on Wednesday they set up shop in Birmingham's Symphony Hall - if not with the full panoply of caves, waterfalls, emeralds, tweeting sparrows, chariots and flying machines to which the barnstorming Queen's Theatre premiere was treated, with a cast whose almost visual dramatic interpretation had hearts drumming and war-drums thrumming.

A selling-point, if such were needed, was the appearance of Cecilia Bartoli in the role of Almirena: not Handel's best-drawn role, but one to which Bartoli brought enchantment in two melting arias: a breathy, pathos-ridden "Lascia ch'io pianga" (a Victorian drawing-room favourite), with its beguiling ripieno recorder birds' chorus; and the stunning, virtually unaccompanied "Bel piacere" on which the finely vibratoed Bartoli cutting edge worked wonders.

If Glyndebourne's Rodelinda seemed the apotheosis of the counter-tenor, try Rinaldo: four roles encompass the alto register, notably Rinaldo himself (premiered in 1711 by the great castrato Nicolini). Here it was the resplendent Polish contralto Ewa Podles, vivid in gesture, meaty in delivery, a performance sweeping all before it with its shifts in dramatic mood, if not always in vocal colouring. The stichomythia - tense, quickfire exchanges of recitative - dazzled in Act 3; and here the Academy's instrumental ensemble, after a pallid launch to Act 1, became all it once used to be: charged and exciting, with trumpets on the nail.

Armida came late into her own. She fumed wanly in Act 1, but her caving in to Rinaldo's macho allure brought forth two sublime arias from the Florentine soprano Maria Costanza Nocentini. Likewise Hilary Summers' Goffredo: initially awkward, delightfully assured later on. But a Canadian double act invigorated Act 1: baritone Gerald Finley as a suave, Moorish satrap; and Daniel Taylor, who recently wowed Glyndebourne in Handel's Theodora, sublime as Bartoli's "uncle" Eustazio, to whom Handel gave some of the most touching arias of all.

Roderic Dunnett