Jean-Christophe Spinosi © Didier Olivré

Content / Background

Following the success of his Agrippina in Venice, George Frideric Handel was invited to the English court by Charles Montagu, Earl of Manchester. In 1710 the 25-year-old composer travelled to London, stayed for almost a year and scored the biggest operatic success of his life with Rinaldo. This rapturously received premiere at the Queen’s Theatre in February 1711 was instrumental in Handel’s subsequent decision to make the British capital his home. If the librettist Giacomo Rossi is to be believed, the “entire opera was set to music by this astonishing genius in only two weeks, and that in utmost perfection.” Handel did indeed work fast but, pragmatic through and through, also used the popular parody technique: for Rinaldo he borrowed around fifteen musical numbers from earlier compositions and combined them with the new text. In his debut opera for London, Handel brought together many of the most beautiful passages he had ever written with the result that Rinaldo remains a work of dazzling musical brilliance today. No expense was spared for the scenery and props of the premiere either: the audience loved the live sparrows (which not everyone thought was a marvellous idea) and the burning Armida’s chariot. In the battle for Jerusalem, General Goffredo has promised his best warrior Rinaldo the hand of his daughter Almirena in marriage as the spoils of victory. The sorceress Armida, who is fighting on the side of Argante, ruler of Jerusalem, steals Almirena from Rinaldo’s arms. While trying to rescue his betrothed, he too is captured – sirens rob him of his senses and Armida takes him to the same place that she is holding Almirena in. She falls passionately in love with the war hero, but is forced to realise that her feelings are not returned. She is torn between love and hate. Argante is also charmed by Almirena and forgets his hostility towards Goffredo. Armida’s prisoners can initially be rescued, but Rinaldo and Almirena must soon part again because Rinaldo has to complete his mission. Despite intensive plans for revenge hatched by Armida and Argante, Rinaldo — and with him the Christian army — is victorious.