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Berkshire Opera rises to 'Rinaldo'

Opera by Handel, presented by Berkshire Opera in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center Thursday night. Repeats today (matinee), with an additional performance in Chapin Hall at Williams College Wednesday.
Call 413-442-0099 for tickets.

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Berkshire Opera set up shop in 1985 with an introductory production of Handel's chamber opera ''Acis and Galatea." The 21st season opened Thursday night with a three-hour masterpiece by Handel, ''Rinaldo," in one of the best-sung performances in the company's history.

This was a semistaged performance, without costumes and scenery, but offering vividly acted performances, effectively directed by Bethany Reeves, who knows how to tell a story on the stage. And what a story it is: Christian warriors on the first Crusade have arrived at Jerusalem, but they are diverted from their primary purpose by the Saracen king and his mistress, the sorceress Armida, and most of the rest of the story is a magical mystery tour of the human heart -- loving, bewitched, lovelorn, vengeful, and nobly purposeful. The conflicts are colorful, stirring, and sometimes amusing, and the score is magnificent. A few arias are famous, but the opera is full of music equally wonderful -- varied, surprising, charming, heartfelt, and unfailingly dramatic in its contrasts and in its progress.

The opera was delightfully played by a first-rate chamber orchestra under the direction of Gary Thor Wedow, chorus master of the New York City Opera. As a young musician Wedow learned Handelian style from a master, Thomas Dunn, then conductor of the Handel & Haydn Society. Years in opera houses have taught him how to make this music theatrical -- and how to accommodate singers while challenging them. His work was knowledgeable, vital, and full of the smell of candlelight and greasepaint. The continuo section included nimble-fingered harpsichordist Aya Hamada and alert cellist David Heiss.

Mezzo Christine Abraham strode with purpose through the role of the warrior Rinaldo and sang with fire, resource, and intelligence. Soprano Mary Wilson had a wicked good time as Armida, unsheathing a bright scimitar of a voice and waving it with abandon. Her singing was seldom beautiful but never boring. Once countertenor David Walker had sung himself into his best voice, he dazzled as he dashed through coloratura mazes and touched the heart with Handel's plangent melodies.

Young mezzo Laura Vlasak Nolen brings to her sincere but not wholly formed work the primal thrill of a major voice; she sounds like a Stephanie Blythe in the making. After three decades before the public, bass John Cheek has trouble with sustained notes, but he's a pro; it was amazing to hear how he could get that weighty voice around all the music's fast hairpin turns. At the end he removed his red-lined cape to fight a convincing duel of lances with Abraham.

The star of that first Berkshire Opera production was a young singer from Stockbridge, soprano Maureen O'Flynn, who has since gone on to sing with the Metropolitan Opera and most major international companies. Since that ''Acis," she has played no part in the revival of Handel's operas, but she sings his music better than most who have. To her fell one of Handel's best-loved arias (''Lascia ch'io pianga"), and it was mesmerizing, not only because of the beauty of the singing but because Wedow doesn't share the current superstition that there was no slow music in the Baroque period.

The performance took place in the old Mahaiwe movie theater in Great Barrington, an ideal venue for opera of this period.

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