Late in 1710 Georg Friedrich Händel arrived in London. A few months later, on 24 February 1711, his opera Rinaldo had its premiere, one day before his 26th birthday. It was a great success, he decided to stay in England, dropped the umlaut in his name and became a naturalised Englishman in 1727,

Here are two portraits of Handel, left circa 1710, right around 1726

I got interested in Handel’s operas, when I was writing a blog about the only opera written by Domenico Scarlatti in 1703, An opera and some history. The history part is about Roman emperor Nero and his mistress Poppaea. History was a popular subject for operas in those days and a few years later Handel wrote his first major opera Agrippina (Nero’s mother). Premiere was in December 1709 in Venice, it was very successful and established the international reputation of 24 year old Handel. Many YouTube recordings exist, here is my favourite (click on the image to watch the recording).

Rinaldo also has a historical background, the First Crusade (1096-1099) The objective of this religious war was the recovery of the Holy Land from Islamic rule. In 1591 the Italian poet Torquato Tasso wrote an epic and romantic poem Gerusalemme liberata about the liberation of Jerusalem. It is epic, containing 1917 stanzas of 8 lines each. And also romantic, the historical background is mixed with several love stories.

The story of Rinaldo and Armida is the most famous one. Rinaldo is a handsome brave crusader knight and Armida a powerful witch, trying to destroy the Christian army. When she meets a sleeping Rinaldo and wants to kill him, she falls in love with the young man and absconds him to her magical island. Rinaldo becomes her willing prisoner and falls in love with her as well. The army sends two friends, Carlo and Ubaldo, to remind him of his duty. Finally they convince Rinaldo to abandon Armida and come back to the war.

Not surprisingly it became a favourite subject for artists. The left painting shows Armida, dagger in her hand, falling in love. The middle one shows a lovesick Rinaldo with Armida on her island and in the right painting the two soldiers have convinced Rinaldo to come back, the boat is waiting already..

If you think that this introduction will make the opera (written in Italian) easier to understand, you are wrong. The story is tweaked completely. Yes, Goffredo is the leader of the Christian army and Rinaldo is the heroic warrior. But the opera gives Goffredo a daughter, Almirena, who will become Rinaldo’s bride after the war is won. And the witch Armida is the queen of Damascus in a love relationship with Argante, the king of Jerusalem. Here is a synopsis of the opera , taken from the very informative website opera-arias.com.


The Christian army, led by Goffredo, is besieging the city of Jerusalem. If the city is taken, then the Christian warrior Rinaldo will be free to marry Goffredo’s daughter Almirena.
In an audience with Goffredo, Argante, the king of Jerusalem, is granted a three-day halt to hostilities. The sorceress Armida, queen of Damascus, descends from the skies and tells her lover Argante that their only hope of victory is the destruction of Rinaldo.
As Rinaldo and Almirena express their love for each other, Armida snatches Almirena away. Goffredo and his brother Eustazio discover the distraught Rinaldo. Eustazio suggests seeking the help of a Christian sorcerer who lives in a cave at the foot of a mountain.


Goffredo, Eustazio and Rinaldo are wandering the seashore searching for the sorcerer when a spirit lures Rinaldo on board a ship by claiming to be sent by Almirena.
In a garden of Armida’s palace garden, Argante reveals his love for Almirena and offers to help her, but she repulses him.
When Rinaldo arrives, Armida’s initial triumph over him turns to love, but she is rejected. Armida transforms herself into the guise of Almirena, but Rinaldo again rejects her, fleeing when he discovers her trickery.
Armida again disguises herself as Almirena, but this time Argante enters and inadvertently reveals his feeIings for Almirena. Armida is outraged and swears revenge.


Goffredo and Eustazio approach the mountain with Armida’s palace at its summit and the sorcerer’s cave at its foot. The sorcerer tells them that Almirena and Rinaldo are held by Armida, and the two warriors set off with two magic wands as protection.
Armida is about to stab Almirena, but Rinaldo rushes to protect her. Goffredo and Eustazio enter and with their wands transform the enchanted garden into a desert. Armida disappears. Argante attempts to rally his generals, and he and Armida are reconciled.
Battle commences, the Christians prevail and the two lovers are reunited. Argante and Armida are captured and, realizing the error of their ways, embrace the Christian faith.

You will agree that this “strange” plot has no resemblance to Tasso’s story of Rinaldo and Armida. Actually this plot was written by Aaron Hill, at that time the manager of the Queen’s Theatre in Hay Market, He was of the same age as Handel and wanted a “hit” for his theatre. Italian opera was becoming popular in London, famous Italian singers were available and his theatre could provide spectacular effects. Giacomo Rossi translated the libretto in Italian and Handel wrote the music. Rinaldo was the result. . All this within a couple of months (or even weeks, although that may be anecdotal) !

A copy of the original Rinaldo “booklet” still exists and is fascinating reading. It contains the text of the opera, both in Italian and in English and has a foreword written by Hill. Here is the foreword. Notice how Hill defends the changes in Tasso’s original story and argues that an opera should give equal pleasure to both senses.

Here is the cast of the first performance. The roles of Rinaldo , Eustazio were sung by castrati, while the part of Goffredo was sung by a female contralto (in travesty). All singers were Italian, the two castrati were so famous that they had nicknames, Niccolini and Valentini. The two sopranos were also prima donnas (and bitter rivals).

Name Role Voice Singer
Goffredo leader of the First Crusade contralto (en travesti) Francesca Vanini-Boschi
Rinaldo a nobleman of the House of Este alto castrato Nicolò Grimaldi (“Nicolini”)
Almirena daughter of Goffredo soprano Isabella Girardeau
Eustazio brother to Goffredo alto castrato Valentino Urbani (“Valentini”)
Argante Saracen king of Jerusalem bass Giuseppe Boschi
Armida Queen of Damascus, Argante’s mistress  soprano Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti
Mago a Christian magician alto castrato Giuseppe Cassani

It must have been a spectacular performance. The libretto contains very detailed stage instructions. Here are a few from ACT III, where Goffredo and Eustazio arrive at the cave of the Mago.

Notice in how much detail the stage is described. A mountain rising from the front of the stage to the utmost height of the most backward part of the stage. Rocks , caves and waterfalls. A castle on top,” guarded by a great number of spirits“. The audience must have been gasping in awe.

The Mago warns them that they can not attack the castle without his help, but still they try. And fail. Many soldiers are swallowed by the mountain, “with thunder, lightning and amazing noises“.

The Mago gives them magical wands and that helps. When they touch the gate of the castle, the whole mountain disappears and Goffredo and Eustazio find them selves clinging to a rock in the middle of a sea.

No wonder that the opera was a success. In the period until 1711-1717 it was performed 47 times, more than any other opera in the Queen’s theatre, Handel revised the opera in 1731, it was also performed abroad a few times but soon it went into oblivion. Only more than 200 year later, in 1954, there was a performance during a Handel festival in Germany. More about the performance history here.

On YouTube I have found only three complete video recordings of Rinaldo. Here is a short description of them.

The first one is a performance in Prague, directed by Václav Luks in 2009. Here is a screenshot , click on it to watch the opera. For me the least attractive of the three that I have seen. In the first place the cast. Of course there are no more castrati nowadays, but the parts of Rinaldo and Eustazio are sung here by mezzo-sopranos instead of by countertenors. Goffredo too is sung by a mezzo-soprano and not by a contralto. The mise-en-scène is very static, the singers face the audience almost permanently, only move a lot their hands and fingers. Here is a (rather negative) review. The YouTube has French subtitles, which makes it easier to follow the plot.

In 1985 Pier Luigi Pizzi directed the 1731 version of Rinaldo which became quite popular and was repeated several times. Here is a screenshot from the 2012 performance in Ravenna, click on the image to watch the opera. The role of Eustazio has been deleted, Goffredo is sung by a tenor and Rinaldo by a mezzo-soprano. The screenshot shows Goffredo, Almirena and Rinaldo. For reasons unclear to me, Almirena and Rinaldo are dressed almost identically. I found the mise-en-scene weird, the singers don’t walk around themselves but are moved by invisible helpers while seated on a horse, sitting in a boat or standing on a platform. No subtitles. Here is a critical review.

The first time I listened to Rinaldo, was on YouTube, an audio recording of a 2002 performance directed by René Jacobs. Very positive reviews. There is another audio recording , 1999, directed by Christopher Hogwood. Both still available as audio-CD.

I got interested how the opera was staged and found a video recording of a 2001 performance in Munich, by the Bayerische Staatsoper. It was on YouTube for some time, then it disappeared, probably because of copyright issues. Now it is back again, but for how long?

What an absurd, crazy mise-en-scène, was my first reaction. But I have changed my opinion, after reading the libretto and watching the other recordings. Yes, It is a parody of the original plot. But the plot deserves that. Example: in Act III, after the crusaders have won the battle of Jerusalem, Argante and Armida unexpectedly decide to become Christian. That Goffredo often changes his dress into a clerical robe fits into an implausible plot. There are many slapstick elements in this version, making Rinaldo a pleasure for the ears AND the eyes (as was Aaron Hill’s origina intention)

Here are screenshots from the three YouTube videos, click to watch. Subtitles in English,

Act I From left to right Rinaldo, Goffredo and Eustazio (all three countertenors) and Almirena as a cheerleader (!), encouraging Rinaldo to fight

Act II In her magic castle Armida tries to seduce Rinaldo. She tries twice to take the form of Almirena. The right wall, with a cardboard figure and a gap in the wall is used in a really brilliant way to confuse Rinaldo.

Act III The Christian magician (countertenor, cast as a voodoo priest) has given Goffredo and Eustazio magic wands to enter the enchanted castle.

In Act III the battle takes place between the two armies. In Hill’s stage directions there are soldiers and Handel wrote martial music to be played during the fighting. The solution found in this modern performance is inventive and ingenious, a real pleasure for the eyes.

Not surprisingly this performance received mixed reviews .. You either love or hate this “camp” version. It is clear that I love it 😉 .

Actually I am not a real opera fan. Many of the famous operas (by Verdi, Wagner, Puccini etc) do not appeal to me. But I love Baroque operas (and of course Mozart), Handel was a prolific composer, he wrote 42 operas, I have listened to only a few of them. So there still will be a lot of beautiful music to enjoy!

We are Star Children

Twelve years ago I started an ambitious project, a series of webpages to explain that we can be considered to be Star Children, in the sense that all the atoms forming our body (with the exception of hydrogen), have been formed in the interior of stars.

The project was too ambitious, here is a screenshot of he small part I managed to complete. It is still available on my website. Click on the screenshot to have a look.

An adult human body (70 kg) contains roughly 7×1027 atoms. Written out a 7 with 27 zeros: 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That is a lot, actually much more than the estimated number of stars in the observable universe (1023-1024).

Most of those atoms are hydrogen atoms. The human body consists roughly of 60% water and each water molecule contains 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. Oxygen comes second and carbon third. Together with nitrogen these four elements form more than 99% of the human body. For the graphs I have used data from the Wikipedia article Composition of the Human Body. Most of the graphs you find on the Internet give mass percentages, in that case oxygen takes first place. I prefer a representation in atomic percentages.

In this graph some of the other elements are shown. About 25 elements are considered to be essential for human life, some in minuscule percentages. For example Cobalt (in vitamin B12) contributes only 3.0×10−7 %

How, where and when were all these elements formed? The scientific name for the formation of the various elements is called nucleosynthesis.

Let’s start with the beginning, the Big Bang.

About 13.77 billion year ago our Universe came into being. That is the present estimate, with an uncertainty of ± 40 million year. It was unbelievably dense and hot, a “soup” of quarks gluons and photons. Immediately it started expanding and cooling and after a few minutes protons and neutrons could form. Some of these protons and neutrons fused into alpha particles ( two protons and two neutrons) until after about 20 minutes the temperature was too low for fusion.

But still way too hot for (neutral) atoms to form, it was a plasma (protons, alpha particles and electrons). If an electron and a nucleus would combine, the photons would immediately break it up again. Only after ~380.000 year, when the temperature had dropped to ~ 3000 K, electrons could recombine with protons and alpha particles to form H and He atoms. Roughly about 92% hydrogen atoms and 8% helium atoms. (usually mass percentages are given, 25% He and 75% H).

From that time onwards the photons did not interact anymore with matter, the universe was still bathing in an orange glow (3000K) but as the universe kept expanding and cooling, this radiation went from visible light to infrared , microwave etc. It is what we now still detect as the cosmic background radiation at a temperature of 2.275 K. About 1 million year after the Big Bang, the universe was COMPLETELY DARK!

These cosmic Dark Ages lasted for many million years. But small fluctuations in matter density caused gravity to form concentrations of matter. Inside these matter concentrations the temperature was rising until a level (many millions of degrees) that fission became possible again. The first stars were born and there was again light in the universe. Later also galaxies developed and after about 1 billion years the universe was basically like it is now.

Here is an impression of the development of the universe.

We will now concentrate on the evolution of these stars. First a few general remarks. Basically everything that happens in the universe is the result of four fundamental forces.

  1. The strong nuclear force between nucleons, only active when the nucleons are very close together,”short-range”
  2. The electromagnetic force, ~100 times weaker, but “long range”, holds atoms together.
  3. The weak nuclear force, ~ 1 million times weaker, “short-range”, responsible for radioactivity.
  4. The gravitational force, extremely weak, ~1039 times weaker, “long-range”.

Back to the new-born star. All four forces are active here. The gravitational force tries to contract the star further. The strong force generates counter pressure, by fusing nucleons together, but those nucleons need to move fast (= high temperature) to overcome the electromagnetic repulsion. The weak nuclear force is needed to transform protons into neutrons. Here is how four protons can produce an alpha particle. Other options are also possible.

Our Sun was born 4.6 billion years ago as a relatively small star, a yellow dwarf. At the moment it is still “burning” hydrogen in its core and will continue to do that for another 5 billion years.

More massive stars will burn a lot faster to counteract gravity. The first stars may have had masses a few hundred times the solar mass, finishing the hydrogen it its core in only a few million years. What next? The core will contract and the temperature will increase. You might expect that fusion would start of two alpha particles into Beryllium (4 protons and 4 neutrons). But there is a problem, that Be isotope is not stable , it has a half live of only 8×10−17 s and decays back into two alpha particles. What will happen occasionally is that during its short lifetime, another alpha particle will collide and form Carbon (6p and 6 n). This is called the triple-alpha process and I will give more details in a separate appendix.

When this helium burning starts in the core, hydrogen burning will still continue in a shell around the core.

In the next phase, when the carbon core has been formed, carbon nuclei will fuse with alpha particles into Oxygen (8p and 8n) surrounded by a helium burning shell. And so on, Neon, Magnesium, Silicon etc. These fusion processes generate less energy than the hydrogen fusion and when iron is reached the fusion stops, fusion to heavier elements would cost energy! The star looks like an onion with its skins.

When there is no more energy to counteract gravity, the star will die in a spectacular fashion, releasing so much energy that for a short time it can be brighter than a whole galaxy. It is called a supernova. A large part of its mass will be ejected into the surrounding space and in the cataclysmic explosion many of the elements heaver than iron are formed. What remains of the star is a neutron star or a black hole.

Recently I have written a blog about the Witch’s Broom nebula, the remnants of a supernova explosion. More details in that blog. The most famous of these supernova remnants is the Crab Nebula. The supernova has been recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054. The center of the nebula contains a neutron star.

Here are a few more examples. They are all false-color images (see my Witch’s Broom blog). Here is a List of Supernova Remnants.

As a result of these supernova explosions the clouds of interstellar gas became more and more “polluted”, no longer consisting of only hydrogen and helium. . It is from these clouds that new stars are born. For example our Sun, 4.9 billion year ago. Still mostly hydrogen and helium but about 0.1 % of the other elements. The big gas planets are also mostly H and He, but the rocky inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) consist mainly of this 0,1 % other elements, as the hydrogen and helium have been “blown” away by the Sun.

Here is Earth, our Blue Marble, the iconic picture was taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 in 1972. Basically all its atoms have been forged in the interior of stars.

And the same holds for all living creatures, including us. Life on Earth is carbon-based, and each carbon atom has been fused in the interior of a star through the triple-alpha process.

We are Star Children


The energy that is released when particles are fused is called the binding energy of that particle. For nuclear processes this energy is usually given in MeV (Million electronVolt). 1 MeV = 1.6×10-13 Joule. An alpha particle has a binding energy is 28.3 MeV. It is this (large) energy which generates pressure to counteract gravity in the interior of stars.

To fuse two alpha particles into beryllium is a different story. You have to add energy (it has a negative binding energy). Not much, 0.092 MeV, but as a result it is unstable, it will decay in two alpha particles. When the British astronomer Fred Hoyle in the 1950s studied the process how elements were formed in the interior of stars, he and others discovered this bottleneck.

During its short lifetime beryllium may fuse with another alpha particle into carbon and that will release energy, 7.367 MeV. The fiery furnace in the core of the star where fusion occurs would contribute another 0.3 MeV. Hoyle calculated that in most cases this “excited” carbon nucleus will decay into alpha particles instead of releasing the extra energy as gamma rays and settling down in its ground state. It could not explain the large amount of carbon found iin the universe.

UNLESS the carbon nucleus would have a so called resonance at an energy of ~7.7 MeV, Think about a soprano who can break a glass by letting it resonate with the frequency of her singing! But at that time no such resonance in the carbon nucleus was known.

Hoyle convinced his friend and colleague William Fowler, an experimental nuclear physicist, to search for such a resonance . And they found this excited level exactly at the energy predicted by Hoyle. This resonance level is now called the Hoyle state,

Was this a coincidence? Without this resonance level, carbon would not have been formed and carbon-based life would have been impossible.

Do we live in a Fine-tuned Universe ? Is the universe custom-made for “us” , the Anthropic Principle . Food for thought 😉