Up until this month, Handel’s 1736 Arminio was one of a very select club among the composer’s operas – those that had only a single commercial recording in the catalogue. Other members currently still include Handel’s very first opera Almira and Muzio Scevola; but, thanks to the efforts of countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, Decca has now released an Arminio to take on the as-yet-unrivalled 2001 recording by Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco.
It’s a particularly interesting new arrival as, unusually for Curtis, this first recording (now available as an Erato reissue) is feeling its age a little. Speeds tend to the matronly, and despite some outstanding contributions from Vivica Genaux in the title-role and Dominique Labelle’s Sigismondo, the casting is more than a little uneven, especially among the lower voices.
Arminio is one of a trio of operas – along with Giustino and Berenice – all written within six months in 1736 – a period of anxiety and pressure for the composer. Arminio didn’t do much to revive the composer’s fortunes, met with little public enthusiasm, was never revived during the composer’s lifetime and was damned with faint praise by the Earl of Shaftesbury as ‘rather grave, but correct and labour’d to the highest degree’.
Much of the blame for this muted success must be laid at the feet of the libretto – an anonymous hatchet-job based on an original libretto by Antonio Salvi, itself adapted from a source by Tacitus. The story is so distilled as to be almost incomprehensible, but sets two love stories against the backdrop of a battle between Roman forces (under General Varo) and Germans (under Arminio). Love, duty, patriotism and honour are the order of the day.
Handel’s score is rich in compensations though, particularly Act 2, which closes with a sequence of contrasting, large-scale arias – Sigismondo’s coloratura showcase ‘Quella fiamma’ and then Arminio’s tragic ‘Vado a morir’ – a lament of near ‘Scherza infida’ stature. The writing for Arminio is especially strong, and Cencic makes the most of it, sustaining a rich, beautifully rounded tone through even the most athletic numbers. It’s quite a contrast to Genaux, whose warrior is grainy, exciting in its dangerous roughness and intensity. Dramatically Cencic is more lover than warrior, but with three countertenors all jostling for space here, his voice offers a lovely middle-ground between Xavier Sabata’s darker tone as Tullio and Vince Yi’s feminine, silvery-bright Sigismondo. Yi’s voice will not be to everyone’s taste, tending to the pinched and shrill at the top (‘Posso morir’ is just one example), and uncannily white in its tone, but does rather suit the character of Sigismondo, Ramise’s vacillating, weak-willed lover.
The real surprises here are Juan Sancho’s Varo and Petros Magoulas’s Segeste. Sancho may be a Baroque specialist (not that you’d know it here from the lack of any artist biographies), but there’s a brilliance and a ring on the top of his tenor that speaks of bel canto to come. His Varo is passionate and vital, a worthy opponent for Cencic’s Arminio. Magoulas, George Petrou’s bass-of-choice, is another find, and his ‘Fiacchero’ sets the tone for a performance that balances agility with weight and heft – a tremendous improvement on the surface-skating lightness of Curtis’s Riccardo Ristori. Canadian soprano Layla Claire (a fine Donna Anna at Glyndebourne in 2014) makes her commercial studio recording debut here as Arminio’s wife Tusnelda. It’s a quality, middleweight voice, promising much for the future, with a darkness at the lower end that anchors the brilliance at the top. An underused Ruxandra Donose is luxury casting as Ramise, fiery and full-toned.
Petrou’s direction keeps the drama moving, animated by clean articulation from Armonia Atenea. If the continuo-playing doesn’t always have the interest of Curtis’s, then the ensemble make up for it elsewhere with swagger and speed. On balance, this Arminio is probably now the best out there.