Handel: Heroes from the Shadows
Another Handel arias disc? Yes; although for once not just a run-down of usual arias from roles a singer happens to have sung recently but a carefully themed recital which brings into the light music that has for the most part languished undeservedly in obscurity. ‘Heroes from the Shadows’ takes as its subject arias written for Handel’s secondary characters which, though less celebrated, have just as much of the composer’s genius in them. For Handel makes no distinction: arias for subsidiary characters are as likely to be as vividly illuminated by psychological insight as those for leading roles.
They do tend to attract less attention from top singers, however, so it is lucky that they are performed here by one of today’s most distinguished Baroque voices. Nathalie Stutzmann’s dark, smooth contralto is always a pleasure to hear but her expressive intensity, athletic virtuosity and emotional intelligence make it a valuable instrument indeed (and an authentic one too; all but two of these arias were written for female singers) – it is hard to imagine anyone bringing more depth and nobility to Handel’s heart-rending slow arias of hopeless love. Yet it is not just a matter of singing slowly and beautifully: in Arsamene’s aria from Serse, the word ‘cor’ at the end of the B section is barely sounded; Ottone breaks momentarily into speech in his aria from Agrippina; and ‘Pena tiranna’, the plaintive sarabande with pained oboe and bassoon lines for Dardano from Amadigi di Gaula is one of several arias to culminate in a surging climactic final phrase and orchestral play-out. Subtle, considered and truthful touches like this make every aria, be it fast or slow, a memorably shaped event.
Everything about that shaping is attributable to Stutzmann herself, of course, for it is she who conducts the orchestra she founded in 2009. Despite some edgy tuning from the strings, they are with her at every turn.