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Knight Music

Rinaldo, Handel's endearing tale of a knight in love, gets a vibrant comic-book kickoff from the City Opera; Leonard Bernstein lives!

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Anyone under 30 who sees the City Opera's delicious new production of Rinaldo is likely to wonder why older generations ever had a problem with Handel. It's been a slow process, but his many operas, long considered musty and unstageable relics of the past, are once again hit shows everywhere. Audiences can't seem to get enough of them, perhaps in part because the stylized musical conventions and structured forms of opera seria appeal to a contemporary sensibility that yearns for a neater, more orderly world. And yet if Handel's operatic universe is highly organized, it is also charged with dramatic tensions created by music that obeys the law while always threatening to upset the status quo in wild and wonderful ways.

Written in 1711, Rinaldo was Handel's first opera for London, a city whose musical life he would dominate for the next 48 years. Italian opera was all the rage, Handel had just turned 26, and Aaron Hill, who prepared the scenario from Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata, was only 24 -- no wonder the piece bursts with such youthful vitality and creative energy. Briefly, the plot concerns the adventures of the Christian knight Rinaldo as he attempts to rescue his beloved, Almirena, from the clutches of Armida, an evil sorceress with amorous designs on Rinaldo, and of the Saracen general Argante, who also lusts after Almirena. Handel would later write operas of more penetrating psychological substance, but he never had more fun with the form than in Rinaldo, which has the zestful flavor of a Baroque comic strip.

That is certainly the spirit that propels the City Opera production, designed and directed by Francisco Negrin and Anthony Baker. On the one hand there is the truly hilarious conception of Armida, who looks like a cross between Morticia Addams and the Bride of Frankenstein. This zany portrait is right there in the music, especially the vengeance aria that ends Act Two with the sorceress playing Handel's wild harpsichord improvisations herself before the instrument explodes in a psychedelic flash -- an inspired touch that I suspect the composer would have adored. The serious moments, when they come, are treated with respect, and we are allowed full sympathy with the lovers' plight and eventual reunion. A fine line is being drawn here, but the production walks it with uncommon skill and theatrical flair, respecting Baroque etiquette and period details while realizing them with real creative imagination.

The singing is little short of spectacular -- no surprise about that, since remarkable Handel singers are now plentiful where a short time ago there were precious few. Christine Goerke not only plays Armida with sly wit, but she also sings the exacting fioriture and lyrical arias with razor-sharp precision and elegant musicianship. David Daniels is her virtuoso equal as Rinaldo, Lisa Saffer sings meltingly as Almirena, and Denis Sedov as Aragante serves notice that another superb coloratura bass is among us. Few early-music specialists conduct Handel opera with more grace, rhythmic lilt, and care for style than Harry Bicket. At last, an original City Opera production of dramatic and musical distinction, one that the company can be proud of.

Is there no end to Leonard Bernstein's largesse? The great man has been dead ten years, but the fruits of his labors continue to arrive, most recently from the New York Philharmonic: a boxed set of ten CDs containing 33 previously unreleased live performances, in most cases of music Bernstein never had the opportunity to record commercially.

Highlights? Well, for those who missed the original concerts, there are those scores that one may have always wanted to hear Bernstein conduct but couldn't until now: Copland's Dance Symphony, 80 minutes of Wagner's Scenes From Götterdämmerung, Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, Britten's Spring Symphony, Bruckner's Sixth Symphony, Elgar's Cockaigne Overture. There are also performances of historic significance, such as the world premieres of Henze's Symphony No. 5 and Ives's Symphony No. 2. Fascinating rarities abound: Varèse's iron-and-steel orchestral showpiece Arcana, Igor Markevitch's glittering tone poem Icare, Lukas Foss's spiky Quintets for Orchestra. We also get a taste of Bernstein the indefatigable teacher trying to convince dubious Philharmonic audiences that the avant-garde works of Xenakis, Brant, Boulez, and Cage merit serious attention.

Perhaps most exciting of all are the concerto collaborations that never happened in the recording studios: an incandescent Rachmaninoff Third with pianist Lazar Berman; Jacqueline du Pré at 21 taking full possession of Schumann's Cello Concerto; pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy at the same age in a sizzling performance of Prokofiev's Second; a magisterial Beethoven Third with Wilhelm Kempff in his only appearance with the Philharmonic; jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson as soloist in William Russo's third-stream Symphony No. 2. Anyone who was there for the Bernstein years will also find at least one treasurable bit of nostalgia, and for me it is Samuel Barber's Second Essay. That was the first music I ever heard Bernstein and the Philharmonic play, at the Salzburg Festival during the orchestra's 1959 European tour with its new music director.

I devoured all ten CDs during three days of compulsive listening and found the experience exhilarating. The selections, carefully chosen by producers Sedgwick Clark and Barbara Haws, are programmed so that each disc can be played as a satisfying 75-minute concert on its own. Since the Philharmonic broadcast regularly in those days, nearly all the performances are in excellent sound, often superior to the harsh studio sonics that one hears on Bernstein's Columbia recordings of the sixties. The set also comes with two information-crammed booklets containing essays, historic photographs, program notes, memories of Bernstein from the musicians who played under his direction, a catalogue of the conductor's more than 1,200 concerts with the orchestra from 1943 to 1989, and a complete list of his published recordings. This indispensable document of Bernsteiniana costs $195 at Tower Record stores and Lincoln Center gift shops and may also be ordered online (newyorkphilharmonic.org) or by phone (800-557-8268).


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