HANDEL Apollo e Dafne - Italian Cantatas, Vol 7
Sadly, even exceptionally good things must come to an end: La Risonanza has reached the seventh and final instalment in its endeavour to research, perform and record all of Handel’s youthful cantate con strumenti composed in Italy. The series has reconfirmed the genius of a composer who was only in his early twenties when he arrived in Rome in 1706, and whom harpsichordist Fabio Bonizzoni half-jokes was surely as much half-Italian as he was German-born and a naturalised British citizen. This programme’s title “Le ultime Cantate Italiane” does not refer to the chronology of the compositions featured, but signifies the disc’s crowning position at the completion of Glossa’s beautifully presented project. Carlo Vitali points out in his erudite note that all three featured cantatas – including two of Handel’s very best – have varying degrees of connections with Naples. Cuopre talvolta il cielo seems to have been written in about summer 1708 for the same bass who sang Polifemo in Handel’s Neapolitan wedding serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, and it is possible that the melodramatic soprano cantata Agrippina condotta a morire originated in the same aristocratic circle. The lovely masterpiece Apollo e Dafne has a couple of numbers that are in a typically Neapolitan style, but the paper-types used in Handel’s manuscript indicate that he started composing it in Rome or Venice shortly before he left Italy, and did not complete the work until after June 1710, when he was appointed Kapellmeister at Hanover. Apollo e Dafne is among the most frequently recorded of Handel’s cantatas but Bonizzoni and La Risonanza lend their magic touch to the captivating dramatic dialogue, and supreme musicianship is allied to insightful characterisation. Apollo has liberated Greece from the monstrous serpent Python, and brags that his arrows have greater potency than Cupid’s.
Cue the gorgeous nymph Dafne, a virgin devotee of the goddess Diana, and the instant object of Apollo’s insatiable desire. The randy god attempts vainly to seduce the disdainful Dafne, and, growing frustrated, chases her; she escapes his clutches by metamorphosing into a laurel. Astonished into penitence, Apollo tenderly promises that from henceforth all heroes shall wear a wreath of laurel leaves in Dafne’s honour. Bonizzoni wisely avoids the temptation to insert an artificial overture, and his affectionate handling of ritornellos, pacing and keenness for subtlety are perfect from the outset. The instrumental playing and singing in Apollo’s opening scene is by turns suave and charismatic (Thomas Bauer avoids the brawny bluster that often mars “Pende il ben dell’universo”, and his quick runs in “Spezza l’arco e getta l’armi” are seamless). Even more than usual, the entrancing beauty of Dafne’s entrance music (“Felicissima quest’alma”) makes it utterly impossible for Apollo to resist entrapment: pizzicato strings and Andrea Minon’s solo oboe construct a beguiling platform for Roberta Invernizzi’s Dafne to float upon blissfully. Bauer’s hushed seductive singing in “Come rosa in su la spina” is spot on, even if Bonizzoni’s judgement of the quiet yet animated strings is quicker than one might expect. Dafne’s “Come in ciel benigna stella” has rarely conveyed the ideal virtuousness and vulnerability achieved by Invernizzi’s plaintive singing and Bonizzoni’s gentle direction. Apollo’s soft imploring and Dafne’s scornful rejection are contrasted superbly in their confrontational duet “Deh, lascia addolcire”, and the sequence that ends the cantata is fabulously interpreted: violinist Nicholas Robinson and bassoonist Dana Karmon flex their virtuosity as Apollo gives chase in “Mie piante correte”, the accompaniment to Apollo’s shocked reaction at Dafne’s sudden transformation is quieter than usual (and more poignant for it), and Bauer’s sotto voce in the da capo of the lament “Cara pianta” is spellbinding.
Invernizzi unveils intense aspects of her artistry in HWV110, in which Julia Agrippina awaits her impending assassination on the orders of her ungrateful son Nero (an act that took place in the Bay of Naples). Bonizzoni and his string players provide assertive accompaniments to Invernizzi’s journey through mixed emotions of despair, maternal love, vengefulness and defiance. The exemplary continuo playing by Bonizzoni and cellist Caterina Dell’Agnello astutely anticipates and responds to Invernizzi’s plunges between lamentation and curses (“Se infelice al mondo vissi”). La Risonanza’s interpretative finesse is sustained into the rarely recorded HWV98: Furio Zanasi possesses a lighter baritonal timbre than the singer implied by the range of Handel’s vocal part, and the jolting violins and rumbling bass might have illustrated thunder and lightning with a bit more aggression, but La Risonanza evoke the intimate imploring of an unfortunate lover instead of forcing the sound effects. I hope that after a healthy break pursuing other projects, La Risonanza will return to “il caro Sassone”.