Notes and Editorial Reviews
This was Handel's first opera for London, and it took the city by storm. Occasional contemporary reports claimed that much of its success was due to the fabulous stage machinery, not to mention the unleashing of a flock of birds during the show; but even on a bare stage this music would impress. It is comprised of bits and pieces of works Handel wrote in his Italian days, but no matter: there are great tunes galore, some heart-wrenching music, plenty of vocal acrobatics, and well-drawn characters. Yes, it's more than three hours long and the last act is far less interesting than the first two, but that's the good news about home entertainment, isn't it?
A 1989 Nuova Era set with Marilyn Horne under John Fisher from Venice is brutally cut and unidiomatic, and one from the late '70s led by Jean-Claude Malgoire is under-conducted, dully sung, and far too tame. That leaves a choice of either Christopher Hogwood's breathtaking two-year-old version starring Cecilia Bartoli and David Daniels or this current one. They're both remarkable.
If it's drama you're looking for, René Jacobs is your man. Attacks are almost vicious, the period instruments are thumped and wheedled and scratched when needed for emphasis. Extraneous noises--distant drums, wind, clatter, and those birds--abound, and the singers sing for dear life. Jacobs also embellishes the score almost too much: Armida's opening aria takes soprano Inga Kalna to stratospheric heights unwritten by Handel (but superbly illustrate the evil character's spine-chilling personality), the continuo throughout is augmented by organ and cello, the strings and winds riff almost improvisatorially, and Armida's second-act-closing aria contains four harpsichord cadenzas, dragging it out to 10 minutes (Malgoire and Fisher get through it in less than five). This last has historic precedence, but it will give you an idea as to what you're in for.
Jacobs' soloists are mostly wonderful: Vivica Genaux is a vivid, involved hero, singing with great evenness, impressive tenderness in the yearning arias, and no fear of Handel's fiercer music; but David Daniels' Rinaldo may just be more gripping and heroic. Miah Persson sings Almirena, including the divine "Laschia ch'io pianga" beautifully, and while she's certainly not as indulgently fussy as Bartoli, who drags it out as if it were "Erbarme dich", she still lacks the sheer loveliness of Ileana Cotrubas (for Malgiore), who surely is the best, perhaps because she's the most straightforward Almirena on discs. (Gasdia for Fisher is a wimp.)
Getting back to Armida, Kalna walks away with the recorded honors, with Organosova for Hogwood neither dramatic nor crazy enough, Weidenger for Fisher uneven, and Scovotti for Malgoire unimportant. For Hogwood, the role of the Captain of the Christian armies is taken by mezzo Bernarda Fink, and she's glorious; still, I prefer countertenor Lawrence Zazzo here. James Rutherford may seem to lack weight as the villainous Argante (who enters violently, in a horse-drawn chariot), but he sings his difficult, high-low, long-breathed, expressive opening aria with virtuosity and flair and is no less fine elsewhere. (Gerard Finley for Hogwood is quite good, but Rutherford is better; Ulrik Cold's voice is darker for Malgoire, but he's a bore). Christopher Dumaux's countertenor makes the most of Eustazio (better than Daniel Taylor for Hogwood; Fisher cuts the role entirely!), and Dominique Visse, always delightfully weird, is spicy as a Christian Wizard.
So it's up to you: I certainly wouldn't want to do without either Hogwood or Jacobs, but desert-islandly-speaking, Jacobs brings the opera so vividly to life that it seems to leap from the speakers, excesses or not. And what's wrong with extra continuo, ornaments galore, and very dramatic singing if it all remains faithful to Handel and keeps us entertained? Jacobs and his cast's unity of purpose is noteworthy. Now if only we could patch in David Daniels... [4/19/2003]
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Reviewing original release, HMU 901796