Opera in Context: Rinaldo – Handel

Rinaldo: Blades, Broads and Bravery in the Holy Land

By Cat Cohen

In the inaugural “Opera in Context” article, we’re taking a look at Rinaldo, opening on January 27 at Pittsburgh Opera. Handel’s opera portrays a Christian war hero’s triumph over vast armies of Muslims and a sexy Syrian witch. Any of that sound familiar?

The story of Rinaldo comes from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem “Gerusalemme liberata”, first published in 1581. While this account of the First Crusade is obviously fictionalized — the mermaids might be a giveaway — it references real historical figures, including Godfrey of Bouillon and Tancred, Prince of Galilee. Tasso describes Rinaldo, our countertenor/mezzo protagonist, as far more worthy than the other Crusaders in virtually all respects:

“But these and all, Rinaldo far exceeds, Star of his sphere, the diamond of this ring, The nest where courage with sweet mercy breeds: A comet worthy each eye’s wondering, His years are fewer than his noble deeds, His fruit is ripe soon as his blossoms spring, Armed, a Mars, might coyest Venus move, And if disarmed, then God himself of Love.”  – “Gerusalemme liberata”, Canto 1, Stanza LVIII

In other words, Rinaldo is brave, young, capable and remarkably good-looking. Kind of like this:

Tiepolo: Rinaldo and Armida in the Garden, c. 1752

Or this:

[youtube width=”607″ height=”366″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3rqm9l3mw0[/youtube]

David Daniels: “Cara sposa, amante cara” from Rinaldo, Act 1 Prinzregententheater Munich, 2003

Instead of David Daniels’ magnificent zoot suit, the actual Rinaldo would have been decked out in about 25 lbs worth of chainmail, as well as a tunic emblazoned with the symbol of the Crusades: a huge red cross. A member of the cavalry, he’d have at least one sturdy, battle-trained warhorse. Along with his armor, he’d carry about 45 lbs of gear, including a large, kite-shaped shield, conical metal helmet, nine or ten-foot wooden lance with a metal tip, and the pièce de résistance, the medieval sword:

“A brief description of the manufacture of a blade will emphasize the great cost of this essential weapon. The first requisite is a straight billet or bar of steel, the production of which was a technological triumph, to be credited to the iron-worker rather than the smith. The bar is brought to bright red heat in the fire and the billet is gradually drawn out and reduced in thickness. During the process of successive heating and hammering, both blade edges and the fuller are shaped on the anvil under the hammer… Once the fuller and edges have gradually taken shape, the next step is rough grinding followed by fine grinding — a process accomplished by the use of files and various grades of stone. The blade was then subjected to a heat treatment to remove any trace of brittleness and to impart flexibility combined with toughness and finally polished… The production of the blade, the manufacture of the crossguard, grip and pommel, and their assembly into the complete weapon, may take close on two hundred hours.”  — Ian Pierce, “The Knight, his Arms and Armour in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries”

According to the late Ewart Oakeshott, godfather of medieval sword classification, the “knightly” sword descended directly from Viking blades and the long, two-edged swords of the prehistoric Celts. The whole thing was about 30″ in length, and about 2″ wide at the hilt. Swords from Rinaldo’s era (c. 1050 -1300) would basically all look like this at the top:

The sword was a “cutting and thrusting” instrument, well-suited to hand-to-hand combat. During its off-time, the sword would be kept in a scabbard attached to a belt at the waist. Like Excalibur, King Arthur’s legendary blade, prized weapons were given names — as Oakeshott puts nicely: “A sword was a living thing and was named for this.”



While the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Norman conquest of England c.1066, the armor and weaponry shown on the tapestry is pretty similar to what the First Crusaders would have used.

Since knights were expected to be fully-fledged warriors by seventeen, noble sons like Rinaldo began developing their skills at an early age:

“The training began early in a boy’s life, if he were a noble child. His teacher would be a knight himself, often a relative or close friend of the boy’s father. The boy was trained in riding a horse, couching a lance, swinging a sword from his saddle and sometimes even throwing a javelin or spear from horseback. Instruction in mounted weaponry would be supplemented by equal training in fighting on foot.”  – Matthew Bennett et al., Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World

So, Handelian mezzos and countertenors: pick up those swords, grab your nearest warhorse and hit the gym, because it’s a long, long way from France to Jerusalem and those witches don’t fight fair.

Handel’s Rinaldo opens at Pittsburgh Opera on January 27, 2011, with performances also on the 29th, February 1, 4, and 6. Click Here for tickets and info.

[youtube width=”607″ height=”366″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbltMsfnivg[/youtube]

Marilyn Horne: “Venti, turbini, prestate” from Rinaldo, Act 1

Craving more context? Check out Cat Cohen’s articles at A Few Short Notes.

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