The 50 greatest Handel recordings – Part 5

Gramophone Wed 12th October 2016

Concluding our survey of the greatest Handel recordings, from 'Giulio Cesare' to 'Tolomeo'

Verdi's Macbeth

All of the reviews printed below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

Giulio Cesare

Jennifer Larmore mez Giulio Cesare Barbara Schlick sop Cleopatra Bernarda Fink mez Cornelia Marianne Rørholm mez Sesto Derek Lee Ragin counterten Tolomeo Furio Zanasi bass Achilla Olivier Lallouette bar Curio Dominique Visse counterten Nireno Concerto Köln / René Jacobs

(Harmonia Mundi)

Handel’s greatest heroic opera sports no fewer than eight principal characters and one of the largest orchestras he ever used. Undoubtedly this, and the singing of Francesca Cuzzoni (Cleopatra) and Senesino (Caesar), helped to launch Giulio Cesare into the enduring popularity that it enjoys to this day. But it’s primarily the quality of the music, with barely a weak number in four hours of entertainment, that’s made it such a favourite with audiences. Here the period instruments are an immediate advantage in giving extra ‘bite’ to the many moments of high drama without threatening to drown the singers in forte passages.

This performance is a particularly fine one with an excellent cast; Caesar, originally sung by a castrato, is here taken by the young mezzo, Jennifer Larmore. She brings weight and inte-grity to the role, seemingly untroubled by the demands of the final triumphant aria, ‘Qual torrente’. Occasionally her vibrato becomes intrusive, but that’s a minor quibble in a performance of this stature. Handel could just as well have called his opera ‘Cleopatra’ as she’s the pivotal element in the drama, a role taken here by Barbara Schlick and sung with acuity and imagination. If Cleopatra represents strength in a woman, then Cornelia is surely the tragic figure, at the mercy of events. Her first aria, ‘Priva son’, here taken very slowly, shows Bernarda Fink to be more than equal to the role, admirable in her steady tone and dignity of character. Derek Lee Ragin’s treacherous Ptolemy is also memorable, venom and fire injected into his agile voice.

A first-rate cast is supported by René Jacobs and Concerto Köln on fine form, though the continuo line is sometimes less than ideally clear. The recording is excellent.

 

Giulio Cesare

Kristina Hammarström mez Giulio Cesare Emanuela Galli sop Cleopatra Mary-Ellen Nesi mez Sesto Irini Karaianni mez Cornelia Romina Basso mez Tolomeo Tassis Christoyannis bar Achilla Petros Magoulas bass Curio Nikos Spanatis counterten Nireno Orchestra of Patras / George Petrou

(Dabringhaus und Grimm)

This new recording of Handel’s complete 1724 text, studio-made but based on a stage production in Thessaloniki, comfortably holds its own with the two fine versions from René Jacobs (see above) and Marc Minkowski (Archiv). George Petrou directs his alert period band with style and sensibility. His tempo choices are occasionally extreme – languorously protracted in Cornelia’s lament ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’, frenetically driven in Caesar’s ‘Qual torrente’. Several times, especially in the first act, one wanted the extended secco recitatives to move more fluently. But despite minor quibbles, the performance, animated by a colourful continuo battalion (two harpsichords, plus strumming theorbo), equals Minkowski, and surpasses Jacobs, in theatrical verve.

Giulio Cesare is in essence a celebration of the power of sex, embodied in the infinitely alluring figure of Cleopatra. Barbara Schlick, for Jacobs, was bright and nimble, but distinctly virginal, while Magdalena Kozená, for Minkowski, combined sensuality with a certain regal detachment. Emanuela Galli certainly generates a stronger sexual charge than either. She sings her playful numbers in the first act with knowing, coquettish grace, then finds warmer, more voluptuous colourings for the ravishing ‘Parnassus’ tableau, ‘V’adoro pupille’. After Cleopatra has herself succumbed to the passion she aroused in Caesar, Galli brings a tragic intensity and individuality of nuance to ‘Se pietà’ and ‘Piangerò’. Occasionally, though, her taste in ornamentation seems questionable – more Verdi’s Violetta than Handel’s Cleopatra.

Dubiously extravagant da capo embellishments also mar one or two other arias. Still, with the partial exception of Irini Karaianni’s dignified but rather matt-toned Cornelia (far less affecting than Jacobs’s Bernarda Fink), the singers, all round, compare well with their counterparts on the rival recordings. Swedish mezzo Kristina Hammarström has both the swashbuckling vigour for Caesar’s heroic arias and the intense inwardness for his great soliloquy at Pompey’s tomb. Though inclined to go berserk in da capos, Romina Basso’s androgynous contralto makes a superb Ptolemy: sleazy, insinuating, neurotically unstable, yet without the hint of camp petulance that countertenors in the role seem unable to avoid. She uses her words more vividly than any of the other singers bar Mary-Ellen Nesi, whose Sextus – fiery, headstrong and thrillingly sung – is surely the finest on disc. Sextus’s magnificent ‘vengeance’ aria ‘L’angue offeso’ is a highlight of the whole performance. The incisive-toned Tassis Christoyannis makes a high-testosterone, impulsive Achilla.

Here’s a Giulio Cesare to return to at least as often as the rival versions, for much superb -Handel-singing, for the lively and inventive continuo playing, and for a dramatic flair and immediacy that, at its best, eclipses all comers.

 

‘Cleopatra’

Natalie Dessay sop Sonia Prina contr Stephen Wallace counterten Le Concert d’Astrée / Emmanuelle Haïm

(Erato)

In advance of their participation in a production of Giulio Cesare at the Palais Garnier, frequent collaborators Natalie Dessay and Emmanuelle Haïm recorded a programme of Cleoptra’s arias that contains not only the usual suspects (‘V’adoro, pupille’, ‘Se pietà’, ‘Piangerò’, ‘Da tempeste’) but also four of the Egyptian Queen’s other arias, two of which are premiere recordings of intriguing soliloquies that Handel composed fully in his autograph manuscript but then decided (rightly) to replace with entirely different and more famous material: he supplanted the animated heroic aria ‘Per dar vita all’idol mio’ with the tragic lament ‘Se pietà’ to convey Cleopatra’s desperate fear yet heroism as Cesare flees to fight the henchmen of her brother Tolomeo, and the mournful siciliano ‘Troppo crudeli siete’ was scrapped in favour of the bittersweet ‘Piangerò’ to illustrate the imprisoned Queen’s pessimism before the lieto fine is eventually established. If nothing else, this album enables us to hear both final thoughts and -discarded drafts consecutively, and allows us the chance to decide whether or not Handel was -correct to sacrifice two excellent climactic arias in favour of radically different ideas offering more potent dramatic sublimity.

The performances are consistently attractive. Le Concert d’Astrée’s accomplished playing extends to the Overture and two bellicose sinfonias, the latter of which provide zesty variety to proceedings. Dessay’s singing is never less than dazzling, and the stratospheric ornaments in the da capo of ‘Venere bella’ are softly sensual. Despite instinctive reservations about its contrived strategy, this album holds together pretty well thanks to Dessay’s gorgeous voice, Haïm’s experienced direction of her capable orchestra and, of course, the modest matter of getting inside the mind of an inspired composer.

 

Hercules

Gidon Saks bass-bar Hercules Anne Sofie von Otter mez Dejanira Richard Croft ten Hyllus Lynne Dawson sop Iole David Daniels counterten Lichas Marcos Pujol bar Priest of Jupiter Chœur des Musiciens du Louvre; Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski

(Archiv)

Hercules has never quite occupied the place it merits in the Handel canon, even though it includes some of his most powerfully dramatic music. This is understood by Marc Minkowski, whose intentions towards the work are made clear from the start of the Overture. But he’s also intent on maintaining its dramatic pace and emphasising its range of feeling. His cast is well able to share his dramatic vision. Von Otter excels as Dejanira. This, rather than Hercules himself, is the central role, carrying the work’s chief expressive weight. There’s some beautifully shaped singing as in her opening air she mourns Hercules’ absence, and she copes well with Minkowski’s demanding tempo in ‘Begone, my fears’. Lynne Dawson makes a delightful Iole, crystalline, airy, rhythmic, but able to call on more intensity where needed. ‘My breast with tender pity swells’ is truly lovely. Lichas’ music is done with refinement but also vigour by David Daniels. Richard Croft, though often hurried by Minkowski, sings much of Hyllus’ music with elegance, and his delicate sustained pianissimo in the da capo of ‘From celestial seats descending’, one of the most inspired pieces in the score, is remarkable. The choral singing is strong, secure, responsive, though the French choir is rather less euphonious than the best English ones. The orchestral playing is duly alert. This account benefits from fewer cuts than his rival Gardiner and superior solo singing.

 

Orlando 

Owen Willetts, Karina Gauvin, Allyson McHardy, Amanda Forsythe, Nathan Berg; Pacific Baroque Orchestra / Alexander Weimann

(ATMA Classique)

This recording of Orlando (1733) was made after a mostly Canadian production at the Vancouver Early Music Festival. Alexander Weimann’s pacing of the action, choice of tempi and shaping of orchestral ritornellos are frequently marvellous; it is a breath of fresh air to hear Zoroastro’s first aria, ‘Lascia Amor’, paced correctly according to Handel’s tempo marking of Allegro, mà non troppo (Nathan Berg’s articulation of his coloratura and calmly authoritative characterisation are spot-on). Likewise, Orlando’s ensuing ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’ is truly an andante, allowing Owen Willetts to sing poetically rather than merely heroically, accompanied by elegantly swaying horns; the orchestra accompanies ‘Fammi combattere’ with subtler than usual shading. There is no resort to clumsy clattering and unbridled over-egging, not even when Orlando’s grip on sanity deteriorates in Act 2; the mad scene benefits from allowing the musical irony to speak for itself.

Amanda Forsythe’s agile singing in Dorinda’s ‘O care parolette’ is so nonchalantly frothy that I can easily forgive the dubious use of organ continuo (which crops up from time to time throughout a performance that is otherwise exemplary for style and sense); her plaintively beautiful arioso ‘Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti’ and siciliana ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato’ are alone worth buying this for. Angelica’s soliloquy ‘Verdi piante’ has the compelling atmosphere of hushed pastoral secrecy, albeit marred by Karina Gauvin’s tendency to transplant her last cadences up an octave. Forsythe’s inconsolable Dorinda is impeccable in the trio that closes Act 1 (‘Consolati, o bella, gentil pastorella’), but the potential subtext that the over-protesting Angelica and Medoro are more interested in singing a love duet to each other is glossed over because of the fleet-footed tempo (arguably ‘right’, but I prefer Christie’s ‘wrong’ languid pacing here); Medoro’s ‘Verdi allori’ is mildly undermined by Allyson McHardy’s meandering formulaic embellishments, and you can sense Berg endeavouring in vain to inject swifter momentum into Weimann’s stealthy approach to Zoroastro’s ‘Sorge infausta’. Recitatives lack emotional intensity when Act 3 reaches its crisis but nonetheless the afflicted title-hero’s sleep scene is blissfully cathartic. ATMA’s libretto omits imperative stage directions, such as the explanation of how Zoroastro restores Orlando to sanity, remorse and the path to glory. Rare misfires are only minor quibbles about one of the most consistently charming Handel opera recordings I’ve reviewed in ages.

Christie is very much concerned with a smooth and generally rich texture and with delicacy of rhythmic shaping. His management of the recitative could hardly be bettered and mo-ments of urgency or of other kinds of emotional stress are tellingly handled. Sometimes he favours a rather sustained style in the arias, making the textures seem airless and heavy, and the lines within them too smooth. However, to set against it there’s his exceptional delicacy of timing, his careful but always natural-sounding moulding of cadences and other critical moments in the score. Not many Handel interpreters show this kind of regard for such matters and it’s a delight to hear Handel’s music so lovingly nurtured; it also helps the singers to convey meaning. The cast is very strong. The title-role is taken by a mezzo, Patricia Bardon, who draws a firm and often slender line, with that gleam in her tone that can so enliven the impact of a lowish mezzo – the famous Mad scene is magnificent. The Sleep scene, with sweet, soft-toned playing of the violette marine,is lovely.

Hilary Summers offers a sensitively sung Medoro, pure and shapely in line. Harry van der Kamp makes a finely weighty Zoroastro, with plenty of resonance in his lower register; the last aria in particular is done in rousing fashion. As Angelica, Rosemary Joshua’s musicianship comes through in her attractive phrasing and timing. Rosa Mannion’s Dorinda is no less full of delights, catching the character to perfection. Hogwood’s lighter orchestral textures are appealing (L’Oiseau-Lyre)but the refinement of detail in the newer set is equally admirable.

 

Partenope

Philippe Jaroussky, Karina Gauvin, John Mark Ainsley, Teresa Iervolino, Emöke Barath, Luca Tittoto; Il Pomo d'Oro / Riccardo Minasi

(Erato)

‘[Senesino] put me in a sweat in telling me that Parthenope was likely to be brought on the stage, for it is the very worst book (excepting one) that I ever read in my whole life…’ (Owen Swiney)

All the reasons why Partenope was originally rejected by London’s Royal Academy of Music in 1726 – frivolity of tone, lack of extended arias and too much recitative – are those which make it so natural a fit for a contemporary audience. EJ Dent describes the libretto as ‘Shakespearean’, putting his finger on the unusual balance of dramatic modes Stampiglia and Handel achieve in a story that ends in a double wedding but could just as easily end in tragedy. Shorter arias distil all Handel’s mature melodic instincts into more emotionally concentrated expressions, while longer recitatives allow for quicker, wittier interplay and more detailed character development.

Which makes it all the more baffling that this is only the third commercial recording of the opera, joining Sigiswald Kuijken (1979) and Christian Curnyn (2004), as well as the DVD production directed by Francisco Negrin (2008). While all three have their interest, and Curnyn’s treatment has been a valuable benchmark since its release, Riccardo Minasi’s triumphant new recording is so sensitive to the work’s shifting tone – by turns buoyant and light-footed, tender, humorous (just listen to the mock-martial relish of the horns in Rosmira’s Act 1 closer ‘Io seguo sol fiero’) – and so impeccably cast as to bring this unusual work’s virtues into sharp new focus.

At the centre of Handel’s love-tangle is Queen Partenope, who must choose between her many suitors: Emilio, the pugnacious Prince of neighbouring Cuma, smooth-talking Arsace, who has abandoned his beloved Rosmira to pursue the queen, and the shyly sincere Armindo.

An onstage battle adds political scope and instrumental colour to an essentially domestic narrative, generating a thrilling sequence of orchestral and vocal episodes. The introductory Marche captures the difference between Curnyn and Minasi. Precise, measured and texturally clean, Curnyn’s battle would do any British general proud, but Minasi’s is the florid, boisterous conflict of opera, bright with jangling percussion additions and the sword-clatter commentary of Federica Bianchi and Davide Pozzi’s harpsichords. You can smell the blood and the braggadocio.

Is there a better Handelian soprano than Karina Gauvin currently working? Her Partenope does nothing to dull the sheen on the Canadian’s crown. The queen must remain a cipher to the end, never showing her hand. Gauvin twitches her lovers’ strings just tightly enough to set them dancing. We hear the relish in her extraordinary ‘Spera o godi’, in which she simultaneously praises Armindo and punishes Arsace (Minasi’s orchestra her willing co-conspirator), and the casual brilliance of her top C in her opening aria ‘L’amor ed il destin’ is deployed with calculated ease. Yet there’s a shy warmth to her ‘Si, scherza, si’ that says that the seductress has finally become a woman worthy of the faithful Armindo.

In contrast to Lawrence Zazzo’s vocal muscularity (Chandos) and René Jacobs’s forceful delivery (Sony), Philippe Jaroussky’s Arsace is all softness – more a lover than a fighter, and the more persuasive for it. He croons his promises to the forsaken Rosmira with such sincerity (‘Ch’io parta?’) that neither she nor we can refuse him. Jaroussky’s bright, light instrument captures both the character’s peevish vanity (‘Sento amor’) and his fragile charm (‘Ma quai note’).

Casting a soprano as Armindo rather than a countertenor (as both Curnyn and Kuijken do) gives the role an innocence that articulates a poignant contrast with the deceitful Arsace. Emoke Baráth makes an exquisite, persuasive suitor. The Hungarian singer grows from tentative delicacy in Act 1 to ringing joy in Act 3 – a constant of sincerity in this group of dissemblers. Mezzo Teresa Iervolino makes much of Rosmira’s low-lying music, retaining vocal colour even in the depths of ‘Furie son dell’alma mia’, and together with bass Luca Tittoto (wonderfully characterful and agile in the supporting role of Ormonte, chief of guards) brings an anchoring depth to a work dominated by so many upper voices.

Minasi follows previous recordings in using Handel’s original 1730 score as the basis for his performing edition, but also steals judiciously from later revivals – notably an extra aria for Armindo (‘Come se ti vedro’) and an attractive trumpet sinfonia. The result, burnished with the conductor’s swift speeds and careful pacing, is a recording that needs no visuals to bring its story to life, an opera lively with human insight and understanding – to comedy what Giulio Cesare is to tragedy.

Minasi has made a masterpiece, catching the passing glances and sideways smiles of Handel’s score, and transforming them into something of real dramatic substance. Minasi’s back-catalogue is exceptional but this is his finest work yet.

 

Rinaldo

David Daniels counterten Rinaldo Cecilia Bartoli mez Almirena Gerald Finley bar Argante Luba Orgoná≈ová sopArmida Bejun Mehta counterten Christian Sorcerer Mark Padmore ten Herald Daniel Taylor counterten Eustazio Bernarda Fink contr Goffredo Catherine Bott sop Siren I Ana-Maria Rincón sop Donna, Siren II Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood

(Decca)

In a sense, Rinaldo is at once Handel’s most familiar and unfamiliar opera: familiar because, as his lavish first stage work for London, it has been much written about both by modern historians and by the composer’s contemporaries; unfamiliar because the Handel opera revival of recent years has largely passed it by. Although there are numerous recordings of its two hit slow arias – ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Cara sposa’ – this is its first complete studio recording for over 20 years. It may not be Handel’s most dramatically effective work (Act 3 marks time rather), and its magic effects and transformation scenes no doubt make it a tricky prospect for opera companies, but in many ways its rich orchestration and impressive set-piece arias make it ideal for recording. That much makes this release a welcome sight already; add the de luxe cast Decca has assembled for the purpose and it begins to look irresistible.

Top of the bill come David Daniels as the eponymous crusader knight and Cecilia Bartoli as his love Almirena. Daniels’s heart-stopping countertenor voice is one of the marvels of our age. It isn’t big, and though he’s technically untroubled by the virtuoso runs of the quicker arias, some may feel it lacks some of the heroic power expected of a warrior; but there’s an inner strength to it, and in the love music he’s utterly convincing. Bartoli is equally impressive, though her singing is less well suited to Handel. She can deliver the most demanding music with almost frightening ease and force, and, as ever, she throws herself into her role, but one can’t help thinking that a more natural and unaffected style would have been more appropriate for arias such as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Augeletti che cantate’. The rest of the cast is almost unwaveringly strong. Daniel Taylor is slightly less technically secure or forceful than the others (which is hardly a criticism), but he does well enough with the opera’s least effective role as Goffredo’s brother Eustazio.

Christopher Hogwood’s direction is typically neat and well-mannered. He isn’t a natural opera conductor – others may have found more magic in the enchanted gardens and more sensuality in the sirens who lure Rinaldo, and you sometimes get the feeling that he’s rushing the singers at important moments – but he has an unerring sense of tempo, and the opera as a whole is well paced. The Academy of Ancient Music plays to a high standard, backed up by a startlingly virtuoso performance on the Drottningholm thunder machine and by some genuine birdsong at the beginning of Act 2.

This version may not be the last word on the opera, but for all-round standard of performance and production it currently wins hands down and it will take some beating.

 

Rodelinda

Simone Kermes sop Rodelinda Marijana Mijanović contr Bertarido Steve Davislim ten Grimoaldo Sonia Prina contr Eduige Marie-Nicole Lemieux contr Unulfo Vito Priante bar Garibaldo Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis

(Archiv)

Rodelinda, first performed in February 1725, is a stunning work dominated by a title-heroine who remains devoted to her supposedly dead husband Bertarido and scorns the advances of his usurper Grimoaldo. The potency of Handel’s score was enhanced by the complexity of the villain, whose lust-driven cruelty gradually crumbles into a desire to abdicate in order to find spiritual peace. The scene in which the penitent tyrant’s life is saved from assassination by the fugitive Bertarido is among Handel’s greatest dramatic moments.

Simone Kermes is full of feisty courage, an assertive woman for whom Bertarido would credibly risk death to be reunited with. She takes no prisoners in some extravagant cadenzas, and sings ‘Morrai, si’ with thrillingly viscious venom. At the other extreme, ‘Ritorna o cara’ is simply gorgeous. There are some weaknesses. Marijana Mijanović’s Bertarido often slips under pitch on long notes and uses indiscriminate vibrato instead of singing through phrases. Her deficiencies with tuning and idiomatic expression are highlighted in two duets with Kermes (one not recorded before), particularly when Handel demands that they sing sustained notes in unison. There is a good case for using a fruity female contralto in castrato roles instead of an angelic countertenor but why Archiv seems keen to record Mijanović’s inadequate performances of Handel roles for his star castrato, Senesino, is incomprehensible. A cursory comparison of Mijanović’s bizarrely unattractive ‘Dove sei’ with any of the impressive contributions from fellow contraltos Marie-Nicole Lemieux or Sonia Prina indicates that either would have better suited the role.

Otherwise, this has an abundance of good things. Il Complesso Barocco have sounded undernourished on some previous recordings but here play with admirable vitality and dramatic subtlety. Curtis has obviously worked hard to encourage his string players to understand what the singers are communicating: each aria is impeccably interpreted and intelligently paced. On the whole, Curtis’s passion and experience ensure another typically persuasive and theatrical vindication of Handel’s genius.

 

Tamerlano

Xavier Sabata, Max Emanuel Cencic, John Mark Ainsley, Karina Gauvin, Ruxandra Donose, Pavel Kudinov; Il Pomo d’Oro / Riccardo Minasi

(Naive)

What a wonderful opera this is. Tamerlano comes between Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda: not nearly as well known as either, it’s fully their equal. It opened at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on October 31, 1724; when it was revived in November 1731 Handel omitted the trio in Act 2 and added an aria for Leone. This recording follows the latter version but reinstates the trio. Crucially, it also adopts the cuts in the secco recitative that Handel made in 1731; it remains a long opera, with the secco recitative accounting for about a quarter of the whole. It is also a dark opera. The proud Ottoman sultan Bajazet shows nothing but contempt for his captor, Tamerlano (Timur, alias Marlowe’s Tamburlaine). After Bajazet’s death – offstage, but only just – there’s the bleakest ‘happy ending’ chorus imaginable, in which the heroine doesn’t join. The dramatic situation is striking – which is the hero, which the villain? – and the music superb.

The chief characteristic of this performance is the unbridled energy of the orchestra. Time and again, in fast music, the violins speed towards the end of a phrase like a bull charging a gate; further impetus comes from swelling on tied notes. Tamerlano’s first aria is marked by heavy accents, while the strings surge and stab away in Bajazet’s exciting ‘Ciel e terra’. It is immensely invigorating, but there are calmer episodes too: soft clarinets for Irene’s siciliano and gentle recorders for ‘Vivo in te’, a duet in the vein of ‘Io t’abbraccio’ in the following year’s Rodelinda.

John Mark Ainsley makes a heroic Bajazet, deeply moving in the broken phrases of his death scene; Andronico is tenderly sung by Max Emanuel Cencic; and Ruxandra Donose brings lovely warm tone to Irene. Why does she speak over the music in her arietta? Karina Gauvin is splendidly forthright as Asteria: no shrinking violet, she makes the singers for Trevor Pinnock and George Petrou sound bland in comparison. I find Xavier Sabata slightly too hooty for comfort but he too is well inside his part.

Petrou’s account of the 1724 version, recitatives and all, is still to be prized. There are good things in Pinnock’s live recording (1731, roughly, minus four arias). But newcomers should start with this throat-grabbing performance from Riccardo Minasi and Il Pomo d’Oro.

Tamerlano has done quite well on disc but this is the first recording to adopt the version that Handel decided on for the premiere. The story is grim. Tamerlano – Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, now generally called Timur – has captured the Ottoman sultan, Bajazet, whose daughter Asteria he proposes to marry. In the end he marries Irene, to whom he was betrothed, and restores Asteria to her lover Andronico, but only after Bajazet has killed himself.

The audience’s sympathies lie with the proud father. The part of Bajazet is usually taken by a tenor; but it lies very low, and it is here sensibly given to a baritone. Whereas Marlowe’s Bajazeth spectacularly brains himself onstage, in this version the sultan takes poison and is carried off to die. The music moves from defiance to tenderness and back in recitative and arioso, which Tassis Christoyannis handles with consummate skill. He also expresses the character’s dignity and resolve in his Act 1 arias with firm, focused tone.

Mata Katsuli is equally impressive as his daughter. Asteria is a strong character who accepts Tamerlano as her husband in order to murder him in bed, but she is desolate when she thinks Andronico has betrayed her. Katsuli sings with a most affecting passion, combined movements and Minuets (which increasingly with tenderness.

Mary-Ellen Nesi makes a strong Andronico, the part written for Senesino. She is rich-toned, as at home in powerful accompanied recitative as in the semiquaver runs of ‘Più d’una tigre’. Irini Karaianni is attractively smoky in her siciliano; lovely clarinets but here, as elsewhere, the continuo is inaudible in places. Nicholas Spanos as Tamerlano, ‘Scythian Shephearde’ though he be, is properly imperial, and he dispatches the coloratura of his last aria with an appropriately wild brilliance. Petros Magoulas has the right bluffness for Leone.

Apart from the problem of balance, there is nothing but praise for George Petrou and his period-instrument orchestra. Just to hear the swelling on a sustained bass note (in the Overture and in Tamerlano’s second aria) is to be reassured that all will be well. All is indeed well, and this recording is a most rewarding surprise.

 

Tolomeo

Ann Hallenberg sop Tolomeo Karina Gauvin sop Seleuce Pietro Spagnoli bar Araspe Anna Bonitatibus mez Elisa Romina Basso mez Alessandro

Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis hpd

(Archiv)

Tolomeo was the last opera Handel wrote for the Royal Academy of Music before the opera company dissolved in 1728. It is a fine work that combines pastoral charm with some powerfully melodramatic scenes. The best known aria is ‘Non lo dirò col labbro’ (famous in Somervell’s arrangement ‘Silent Worship’), here sung sweetly by Romina Basso.

There is not a weak link in this superb cast, with all the singers perfect for the vocal and dramatic properties of their roles. Ann Hallenberg’s supple coloratura is perfectly aligned with dramatic awareness and melodic sensibility in numerous accompanied recitatives and arias: the sleep scene in Act 1 is beautifully judged and the hedonistic accompagnato that precedes ‘Stile amare’ is gripping. Anna Bonitatibus’s singing is magnificent, and her ornamentation and cadenza are fabulous. Pietro Spagnoli sings the tyrant Araspe firmly but one also feels a degree of sympathy for his hopeless infatuation with Ptolemy’s wife Seleuce. Karina Gauvin’s singing is dramatic and colourful: her interplay with two recorders in ‘Fonti amiche’ is simple yet ravishing and the hushed ‘Dite, che fa’ (with muted strings and offstage echoes from Ptolemy) is utterly gorgeous.

Alan Curtis’s recent Handel opera recordings have been admirable in patches but flawed by inconsistent casts and occasionally weedy instrumental playing. It is a delight to hear the Italian-based American harpsichordist and Il Complesso Barocco back on top-notch form in this delectable performance. The overture oozes with charisma and the orchestral playing is beautifully paced and articulated. Each ritornello shows finesse and a deep-rooted fondness for the subtleties in Handel’s writing. Recitatives are never sluggish but Curtis does not force proceedings unnaturally, allowing the language and rhetoric enough space to work their magic. He has all the energy and dynamism necessary but also realises that courtliness and elegance are vital elements of Handel’s music. All in all, this is a perfect Handel opera recording.

 

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