The 10 best Baroque operas and recordings

Antony Craig
Thursday, July 4, 2013

Italian and English Baroque operas have gained popularity in the UK in recent decades – helped along by some inspired productions by Glyndebourne and English National Opera. Now, following fascinating productions this summer of both Charpentier’s Medea (ENO) and Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie (Glyndebourne), the neglected genre of French Baroque is ready to take its place at the top table.

Here’s a guide to 10 of the best Baroque operas, with some highly recommended recordings to go with them.

Rameau may have been France’s undisputed master of harmony, but he was all of 50 when he completed his first opera in 1733. According to William Christie, Hippolyte et Aricie is Rameau’s masterpiece. He persuaded Glyndebourne to stage it and the sheer musical invention and glorious complexity of the work means Rameau’s thrilling reinterpretation of Racine’s Phèdre has to feature in my list. I’ve written about Glyndebourne’s production together with a podcast with Christie and you can see it live in cinemas or streamed online on July 25. As Glyndebourne’s director, Jonathan Kent, puts it, ‘Pellegrin [Rameau’s librettist] lifts things straight from the Racine and then, set by Rameau, things which are pretty astonishing in the Racine become completely heartbreaking.’

The premise of Hippolyte et Aricie is a dialectic between Diane, goddess of chastity, and L’Amour (Cupid) as to whether unbridled passion should hold sway or whether our lives should be ruled by chastity and austerity. And it’s pretty clear where Kent’s sympathies lie – he has set the whole piece in a huge frig. Diane’s austere regime is cold and frigid. The opera’s great moment comes when, having learnt that the stepson whose love she craved is dead, Sarah Connolly’s tortured Phèdre intones her Plaint, which for me has as powerful an impact as Dido’s Lament (see below). It is a marvellous moment of theatre and Connolly – her bearing, her voice, her pathos – is breathtaking. Watch it in the cinema, or online, and be ready for some evil twists in the awkward ‘happily ever after’ final act, required by the conventions of Rameau’s time but out of place in the 21st century – Kent has created the happily-ever-after from hell.

In the meantime, try William Christie’s own recording from 1995, with Lorraine Hunt as Phèdre (Erato 2564 66305-2). It’s also well worth listening to Janet Baker’s rendering of the Plaint (Philips 475 161-2), from a 1965 recording by Anthony Lewis, which persuaded the young Christie, then a student at Harvard, to make a life in music.

My second selection – and the only Handel in my list – is Glyndebourne’s spellbinding Giulio Cesare in Egitto from 2005, preserved on a smashing Opus Arte DVD (OA 0950 D), with some attractive extras. No surprise that it’s William Christie again. Sarah Connolly is marvellous in the title role (she does the trouser roles so well!), much more effective than David Daniels who sung Cesare at Glyndebourne’s first revival, but this flawless production is memorable as much as anything for the sensational impact of Danielle de Niese’s ever so sexy Cleopatra. This is music made for her and her bravura singing and dancing performance so enraptured Glyndebourne’s boss Gus Christie that he married her. If you prefer it on CD, try Alan Curtis’s recent release with Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Karina Gauvin (Naïve OP 30536).

My third choice is Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies combined to present this in 2009, available on DVD with the ubiquitous Connolly again as Dido, Queen of Carthage, with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Dido’s Lament another Connolly tour de force. It also features Lucas Meachem and Lucy Crowe (Opus Arte OA 1018 D). On CD, try Connolly, Gerald Finley and Crowe on Chandos Chaconne (CHAN 0757), or Christie, whose Dido is Veronique Gens (Erato 2564 65988-0), but do listen also to Kirsten Flagstad, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, in Geraint Jones’s recording from 1951-2 on EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century (509690-2). The CD also includes Flagstad’s 1948 studio recording of the Lament. For a top recommendation, though, I have to turn to Janet Baker’s supreme performance, from 1962, in Anthony Lewis’s recording on Decca (425 720-2DM).

Interestingly, Covent Garden staged Dido in a double bill with Handel’s charming Acis and Galatea, in which de Niese – as Galatea – made her debut not only with the Royal Opera but with the Royal Ballet, dancing the final pas de deux with Edward Watson’s Acis (Opus Arte OA 1025 D).

Back to French Baroque. I am including Charpentier’s rarely-performed Médée, as Connolly’s spellbinding interpretation for ENO earlier this year is still fresh in the mind. For a CD version go to the stunning complete recording by William Christie from 1994, with Mark Padmore as Jason and Lorraine Hunt fabulous as Médée (Erato 2564 66305-7).

My first Monteverdi is L’Incoronazione di Poppea. There’s an interesting Chandos release in English from a live performance at the London Coliseum, with Janet Baker as Poppea, but take John Eliot Gardiner’s recording on DG Archiv (447 088-2AH3), with Sylvia McNair in the title role. For a DVD choice, though, you have to go to Harry Bicket and the Baroque Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, whose stunning 2012 rendering features Miah Persson as Poppea and Sarah Connolly (in yet another of her trouser roles) as Nero (Opus Arte OA 1073 D).

I have to include Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and you have to watch Jonathan Kent’s extraordinary invention for Glyndebourne in 2009 (Opus Arte OA 1031 D). William Christie conducts a huge cast, including Lucy Crowe, Carolyn Sampson and Ed Lyon, and you will surely be delighted and amazed. If you must have it on CD, go to Gardiner on DG Archive (419 221-1AH2).

Diego Fasolis’s recording of Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse (Virgin 602869-2) was Gramophone’s Recording of the Month in January, described by David Vickers as a ‘sensational landmark recording’.

On the other hand, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, often cited as the ‘first opera’, boasts a huge discography. I like the beautifully presented recording by Claudio Cavina (Glossa GES 920913-E), with La Venexiana, Mirko Guadagnini as Orfeo and Emanuela Galli as Euridice. On DVD, you might try Jordi Savall’s beautiful 2002 period production from Barcelona, with Furio Zanasi, Arianna Savall and Montserrat Figueras (Opus Arte OA 0842 D).

My final two choices are Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, with Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Jennifer Larmore and Philippe Jaroussky conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi (Naïve OP 30393) and – let’s go full circle – a final French offering, Lully’s Thésée, from the Boston Early Music Festival, with joint musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs (CPO 777 240-2).

So here’s my personal list of 10 of the best – I’ve included two each by Monteverdi and Purcell but only Giulio Cesare by Handel! Feel free to contradict me and suggest your own favourites!

Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie

Handel Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Purcell Dido and Aeneas

Charpentier Médée

Monteverdi L'incoronazione di Poppea

Purcell The Fairy Queen

Vinci Artaserse

Monteverdi L'Orfeo

Vivaldi Orlando furioso

Lully Thésée

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