RINALDO (HWV 7a)
Libretto: Giacomo Rossi, based on a scenario by Aaron Hill, after Torquato Tasso's 'Gerusalemme liberata'
First performance: 24th February 1711, Queen 's Theatre, London
- Nicolo Grimaldi, called Nicolini (Alto castrato)
- Francesca Vanini-Boschi (Contralto)
- Valentino Urbani, called Valentini (Alto castrato)
- Isabella Girardeau (Soprano)
- Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti (Soprano)
- Giuseppe Maria Boschi (Bass)
- Giuseppe Cassani (Alto castrato)
- Lawrence (Tenor)
The action takes place in Outremer during the First Crusade (1096-99). Christian forces led by Goffredo (Godfrey of Bouillon) are laying siege to the city of Jerusalem, which is defended by its king, Argante. With Goffredo are his brother Eustazio and his daughter Almirena, who loves and is loved by the Christian knight Rinaldo. Argante’s ally and lover is Armida, Queen of Damascus and a formidable sorceress.
In the Christian camp, Goffredo anticipates the glory that Jerusalem’s imminent capture will bring and confirms his promise to Rinaldo of Almirena’s hand in marriage if the Christians are victorious. Almirena encourages Rinaldo to focus on the military campaign, setting aside for the moment all thoughts of love, but he laments the pain of love delayed.
A herald announces the arrival of Argante who is, as Eustazio rightly anticipates, fearful of defeat, and who comes to request a three-day truce, to which Goffredo agrees. Left alone, Argante longs for the arrival of Armida, who descends from the skies in a chariot drawn by dragons and informs him that her magic arts have enabled her to discover that their only hope of victory lies in depriving the Christian forces of Rinaldo’s support – a task which she herself will undertake.
In a beautiful garden with singing birds, Almirena’s thoughts are of love. She and Rinaldo exchange endearments until suddenly Armida abducts Almirena under cover of a cloud full of fire-breathing monsters, leaving a distraught Rinaldo. He tells Goffredo and Eustazio what has happened and Eustazio suggests he seek help from a Christian sorcerer. Rinaldo is encouraged and calls on the winds and heaven to second his revenge.
Eustazio, Rinaldo and Goffredo arrive at a shore near the Sorcerer’s dwelling. A spirit in the form of a beautiful woman and claiming to be sent by Almirena tries to lure Rinaldo into her boat, while two Siren’s sing of loves delights. Suspecting a trap, Rinaldo’s companions try to hold him back, but he rejects their counsel, breaks free, enters the boat and sails away. Eustazio is amazed at Rinaldo’s apparent desertion, Goffredo steels himself to fight on despite having now lost both Almirena and Rinaldo.
In a beautiful garden in Armida’s enchanted palace, Almirena laments her captivity. Argante declares his love for Almirena, who challenges him to prove it by securing her release. As she continues lamenting, Argante feels himself weakening and finally promises to help her.
Armida, meanwhile, exults at Rinaldo’s capture. When he is brought before her, however, she is captivated by his defiance and declares her love for him, only to be scornfully repulsed. She then tries to seduce him by taking the form of Almirena, but after some initial confusion, Rinaldo quickly suspects some deception. He leaves, and Armida is torn between vindictive fury at having been spurned and a love that renders her incapable of vengeance.
Still hoping to dupe Rinaldo, Armida resumes the form of Almirena, but it is Argante who now approaches. Unlike Rinaldo, he is taken in and resumes his advances on “Almirena” – much to Armida’s fury. She accuses him of treachery, he admits to loving Almirena and renounces Armida’s help. Armida vows to be revenged on Argante.
Eustazio and Goffredo arrive at the Sorcerer’s cave, at the foot of the same mountain on whose summit Armida’s palace is situated, guarded by monsters. The Sorcerer tells them that Rinaldo and Almirena are in the palace, and they immediately set off up the mountain with their troops, ignoring his warning that they can only gain entry to the palace if they are armed with a power equal to the infernal power of Armida. Hideous monsters drive them back and the mountain belches smoke and flames.
The Sorcerer then furnishes Goffredo and Eustazio with magic wands able to overcome Armida’s magic and encourages them to make another assault on the mountain. With the help of the wands, the monsters are routed. When the brothers touch the gates of the palace with them, both the palace and the mountain disappear and they find themselves clinging to a rock above a stormy sea. They climb over the rock and are lost to view. The hermit sings to encourage them until victory is achieved, then returns to his cave.
Meanwhile, in the garden of her palace Armida is on the point of killing Almirena to avenge herself for Rinaldo’s indifference. He draws his sword, but spirits rise out of the ground to defend Armida. She calls on the Furies to protect her as Goffredo and Eustazio arrive, but when they touch the garden with their magic wands, it disappears, leaving a vast plain with Jerusalem in the distance. Armida again tries to stab Almirena, but vanishes when Rinaldo strikes her with his sword, and Goffredo, Eustazio, Almirena and Rinaldo rejoice at being reunited. The heroes resolve to launch an assault on Jerusalem the next morning and Goffredo encourages Rinaldo to redeem the time he has lost to amorous dalliance with deeds of valour; Rinaldo reflects that love and a desire for glory both spur him on to distinguish himself.
The Saracens too are preparing for battle. Argante encourages his generals to fight bravely to defend Jerusalem. Faced with a common enemy, he and Armida are reconciled, and together they review their troops.
In the Christian camp, Almirena looks forward to her love’s fulfilment. As the enemy approaches, Goffredo entrusts her and the camp to Eustazio’s protection. Goffredo and Rinaldo review their troops and plan their battle strategy; Goffredo will lead the main army, while Rinaldo will attack from the flank. Rinaldo looks forward to success in battle and the consummation of his love. Argante and Goffredo order and encourage their troops, and finally battle is joined. For a time, the outcome hangs in the balance, but when Rinaldo, who has already succeeded in taking Jerusalem, makes his flank attack, the enemy is routed. Argante is captured by Rinaldo, Armida by Eustazio. Rinaldo and Almirena are united, Armida and Argante both embrace Christianity and are released by Goffredo. All proclaim the supreme value of virtue.
Rinaldo was Handel’s first Italian opera written for London, and indeed the first original Italian opera ever to be performed on the London stage. Although there had been attempts prior to this, they had largely been stitched together from popular numbers from existing Italian operas, or were settings of English words to music in the Italian style. The taste in London though was definitely for the authentic Italian experience, as English gentlemen returned home from the Grand Tour and sought pleasures similar to those they had experienced on the continent. It is no exaggeration to say that Rinaldo caused a sensation, with it’s spectacular stage effects and costumes and original music.
One scene in particular grabbed the attention of the audience. As Almirena wandered through her beautiful garden toward the end of Act I, hundreds of real sparrows were released to add their own musical accompaniment to her delicate aria ‘Augelleti che cantate’. Whilst some were no doubt charmed by this startling effect, the journalist Richard Steele was worried about the implications of having live birds fluttering around the stage: ‘There have been so many Flights…let loose in this Opera, that it is feared the House will never get rid of them; and that in other Plays they may make their Entrance in very wrong and improper scenes…besides the Inconveniences which the Heads of the Audience may sometimes suffer from them”.
Rinaldo ran for 15 performances and was revived by Handel a number of times over the following years, through to 1731.