Medea, Euridice, Alceste, Andromeda: the women that people Mary-Ellen Nesi’s first solo disc might all be Classical characters but, far from the cool, marble figures of antiquity, they live and strive and suffer and (all too often) die in music that is warm to the touch, throbbing with human passion and emotion. Rich dramatic material indeed for the Canadian-Greek mezzo-soprano’s solo debut.
The elaborate concept of ‘Archetypon’, which traces the genealogy between Classical female archetypes and the persona of the prima donna, is a thesis in the making. More importantly, though, it’s also a scaffolding for a wonderfully wide-ranging, eclectic and often obscure collection of operatic arias. Nearly a century divides the disc’s earliest work (Andrea Stefano Fiorè’s Pirro, c1700) and its latest (Cherubini’s Médée, 1797), making for some startling shifts of style and mood through this recital.
If a chronological approach might have helped us trace this process more carefully, a more thematic approach creates some exhilarating musical collisions – setting the classical balance and control of Gluck’s ‘Non vi turbate, no’ from Alceste against the explosive virtuosity of Hasse’s ‘Si, di ferri mi cingete’ and the mercurial, proto-Romantic mood swings of ‘Du trouble affreux’ from Cherubini’s Médée.
Nesi’s is a bold instrument – big-boned and handsome – which is at its best in her Baroque home territory, showcasing both its power and agility. There’s a wiriness though, a grainy grip, that creeps in at extremes of range and emotion that makes sense when set against the sympathetic rasp and clip of Petrou’s wonderful period ensemble but which can’t help troubling the legato surface of some of the later repertoire.
As a concept and a collection of (comparative) rarities, including several premiere recordings, ‘Archetypon’ is well worth a listen, bringing Classical drama from page to stage with vibrant musical conviction.