On attending the first rehearsal of Alcina Handel’s friend, the remarkable Mary Pendarves, pronounced it “the best he ever made”. The first audiences at Covent Garden Theatre thought so too. Put to the test by the rival Opera of the Nobility, Handel seems to have relished the opportunity to shine afresh with a mixed cast of Italian, English and German singers and a French ballet company, led by Marie Sallé.
Alan Curtis, too, clearly welcomed the chance to add this masterpiece to the gradually expanding list of Handel operas he has recorded with Il Complesso Barocco. This Alcina is polished and passionate, the standard of da capo ornamentation unsurpassed.
Acoustically it offers a striking alternative to the Hickox (EMI, 11/86R) and Christie (Erato, 3/00) versions, both of which were based on live performances, rely upon larger forces and involve concessions Handel would have understood. The acoustical environment of this recording is near-perfect. Every detail can be clearly heard, in part because of the minimal instrumental resources Curtis employs and his keen sense of the architecture and pacing of Handel’s music.
Handel knew his singers’ individual strengths and played to them. Curtis, too, knows how to coax the best from his singers. Joyce DiDonato, Maite Beaumont and Karina Gauvin have worked with him before and contribute vividly informed portrayals of the principal characters that stand comparison with the best performances on previous recordings. Technically, DiDonato is superb: her Alcina is a complex, feminine creature, vain and vindictive – listen to her spine-tingling performance of “Ombre pallide” and the recitative that precedes it in Act 2. Beaumont is at ease in Carestini’s role as Ruggiero – heroic when required (as in “Bramo di trionfar”, the discarded aria, originally in Act 1 scene 7, that Curtis reinstated) – and more than equal to the demands of the much-loved “Verdi prati” (Act 2). Gauvin, her silk-clad Morgana fully as manipulative as Alcina, and Prina, the ever faithful Bradamante, each bring tremendous spirit and sensuousness to their roles. If Van Rensburg’s Oronte wavers momentarily in Act 3, Priante’s steadfast Melisso and Cherici’s courageous Oberto show the way. This could well be the Alcina we’ve been waiting for.