05 September 2014

CD REVIEW: HANDEL ARIAS (Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Hyperion CDA67979)


GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Arias from Alcina (HWV 34), Ariodante (HWV 33), Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17), Hercules (HWV 60), and Radamisto (HWV 12a); Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; The English Concert; Harry Bicket, conductor [Recorded in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, UK, 6 – 9 June 2012 and 6 – 7 September 2013; Hyperion CDA67979; 1CD, 68:31; Available from Hyperion, harmonia mundi USA, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

As acknowledged even by some of today’s finest artists, at the heart of the alleged diminution of opera in the first fourteen years of the new millennium is a dearth of the truly grand singing that made nights at the opera in years past events of indelible substance. Thirty years ago, when Georg Friedrich Händel’s Rinaldo was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the first of the composer’s operas to grace the MET stage in its then-101-year history, Händel’s barnstorming score shared glory with the company début of Samuel Ramey, whose Argante brought to Händel’s music the sort of vocal star quality familiar to MET patrons in the operas of Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. Particularly revealing in the context of today’s operatic quandaries is Donal Henahan’s assessment in the New York Times of Marilyn Horne’s performance of the title rôle. Though she was judged to have been marginally off her best form, it was noted that ‘Miss Horne’s second best is anybody else’s triumph.’ Innovative productions and daring repertory are important components of opera’s imperative quest to attract and retain audiences, but the perseverance of the genre depends upon these kinds of singers and singing. Opera is an art form that must flourish: mere endurance is perhaps a worse fate than extinction. As the career of Cheshire-born mezzo-soprano Alice Coote has advanced during the past decade, opera has thrived whenever and wherever she sang. In an exceptional array of styles ranging from Monteverdi to Muhly, Ms. Coote’s versatility has been equaled only by the consistency of her vocal comfort in each niche of her repertoire. Acclaimed as one of today’s foremost Händelians, she is both in her sovereign grasp of Händel’s idiom and the warmth and intelligence of her singing of music by Schubert, Elgar, Mahler, and Richard Strauss the heir to the position carved out in the vocal Pantheon by Dame Janet Baker. Only an extraordinary artist could be worthy of comparison with Baker, and Ms. Coote has ratified her petition with her Nerone and Messaggera, Maffio Orsini and Hänsel, Komponist and Octavian, Meg Page and Anne Strewson. In this new disc of arias from five of Händel’s best scores, she fully manifests her merit as a singing actress. Whether impersonating the wife of a hero of Antiquity, the son of a Roman consul, the consort of a Thracian prince, a Saracen knight, or a vassal prince betrothed to a Scottish princess, she sings persuasively. Her singing emanates the tranquility of earned technical assurance: in the arias on this recording, she knows where she is going and how to get there and therefore is liberated to savor the voyage.

Under the direction of Händel authority Harry Bicket, the musical sorcerers of the English Concert again justify the esteem in which they are held by aficionados of historically-informed playing by conjuring precisely the right atmosphere for each of Ms. Coote’s interpretations. These musicians cooperate so constructively that leadership is hardly necessary, but they respond to Maestro Bicket’s direction with keenness that mirrors the camaraderie between the conductor and singer. The performances on this disc are not instances of singer following conductor or vice versa: Ms. Coote and Maestro Bicket manage the music as dialogues rather than dictations. The understated continuo provided by Maestro Bicket’s duties at the harpsichord and the unfailingly elegant theorbo playing by William Carter builds a solid foundation while also magnifying attention on the inventive ways in which Händel’s orchestrations support and in some cases counteract the vocal lines. All of the instrumentalists play with the unwavering grasp of Händel’s style expected of them, but what makes their performance so gratifying is its daredevil spirit. This is not ‘sit back and relax’ accompaniment: this is playing that is itself a wordless character in each dramatic microcosm.

In the three incarnations of Radamisto that greeted Londoners in the 1720s, the part of Zenobia, the title character’s wife, was taken in succession by three of the finest singers with whom Händel worked during his long career: Anastasia Robinson, Margherita Durastanti (who sang Radamisto in the opera’s first production), and Faustina Bordoni. Ms. Coote’s singing of Zenobia’s aria ‘Quando mai, spietata sorte’ from Act Two places her in the company of these great artists of the composer’s time. The singer duets rapturously with the oboe obbligato, expansively phrased by Katharina Spreckelsen, shaping the principal theme—reminiscent of the famous ‘Ombra mai fù’ from Serse—with subdued anguish. Ms. Coote’s command of Italian is excellent, avoiding the artificial vowels and glassy consonants heard from many English-speaking singers in Italian repertory, and in her performance of ‘Quando mai, spietata sorte’ she ornaments very discreetly, a welcome practice from which she does not deviate in any of the arias on this disc.

Ruggiero’s ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ from Act Two of Alcina prompts Ms. Coote to further intensification of her skills as a musical raconteuse. She intuitively employs Händel’s austere vocal lines as vehicles for concise psychological expression but does so without ever placing a single note beyond the boundaries of good taste. The celebrated ‘Verdi prati, selve amene’ is sung with emotional absorption that honors Händel’s lofty inspiration without exaggerating the aria’s sentimentality, and the steadiness of Ms. Coote’s tone permits full appreciation of the depth of the composer’s dramatic adroitness. In the rousing ‘Stà nell’Ircana pietrosa tana tigre sdegnosa’ from Act Two, its bellowing horn parts played splendidly by Ursula Paludan Monberg and Richard Bayliss, Ms. Coote unleashes her formidable bravura technique, confirming that her excursions into the music of Mahler and Strauss have robbed her of none of her trademark flexibility in Baroque coloratura. Her delivery of Händel’s passagework is free from disruptive aspirates, and she is among the few singers capable of maintaining textual sharpness when the vocal lines burst into fireworks displays.

The vocal opulence that Ms. Coote unfurls in Händel’s music for Dejanira in his dramatically electrifying Hercules recalls the singing of perhaps the rôle’s most fire-breathing recorded interpreter, Sarah Walker. Like Walker, Ms. Coote is a very womanly Dejanira with a steel edge, and the histrionic ardor of her delivery occasionally permits a slight ungainliness to emerge. She keeps this under control, however, and even uses it to her advantage. Good English diction by native speakers is something that cannot be taken for granted, and Ms. Coote enunciates Dejanira’s words nobly without sounding as though she is delivering an address before Parliament. Sensitively supported by Mr. Carter and the bewitchingly sonorous playing of cellist Joseph Crouch, her performance of ‘There in myrtle shades reclined’ from Act One is almost unendurably poignant, the euphoric, excruciating beauty of the voice lending Dejanira’s contemplation of conjugal bliss special luminosity. The recitative ‘Dissembling, false, perfidious Hercules’ and aria ‘Cease, ruler of the day, to rise’ from Act Two are delivered with comparable force, but it is in ‘Where shall I fly?’ from Act Three that Ms. Coote transforms herself into an expert tragédienne. Dejanira’s horror and remorse at having machinated her blameless husband’s death drew from Händel’s imagination one of his most original scenes. Ms. Coote clutches every note with the desperation of a woman clinging to her lover’s dying breaths, and the prevailing humanity of her singing of ‘See the dreadful sisters rise’ startlingly conveys Dejanira’s heartbreak. Furthermore, solely as vocalism her portrayal of Dejanira is momentous.

The serenity with which Ms. Coote sings Sesto’s piercingly lovely ‘Cara speme, questo core’ from Act One of Giulio Cesare, reinforced by Mr. Carter and Mr. Crouch, is delightful. The aria is a moment of repose in the operatic life of an impetuous character, and there is a strange irony in the tenderness with which he sings of having sanguineous revenge. Ms. Coote devotes her energy to singing the aria and lets the dramatic implications fall where they may: refusing to allow her aim to be diverted from straightforward vocalism, she hits the target dead in the center of Sesto’s volatile spirit.

Her singing of the title character’s ‘Con l’ali di costanza’ from Act One and ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ from Act Three of Ariodante further asserts that, in terms of accurate, dexterous negotiation of rapid-fire divisions, Ms. Coote remains a world-class Händelian. In both of these arias, her security throughout her range makes a great effect, and her restraint in cadenzas is far more impressive than the historically-inappropriate flamboyance in which many singers indulge in this music. Her singing of the familiar ‘Scherza infida!’ from Act Two, preceded by an incisive account of the recitative ‘E vivo ancora? E senza il ferro?’ that again benefits from Mr. Carter’s collaboration, throbs with confusion, exasperation, and resolve. That this is one of Händel’s finest arias is obvious, but even the celebrated Giovanni Carestini, Händel’s first Ariodante, is unlikely to have sung it better than Ms. Coote.

In the decades since the global resurgence of interest in the composer’s operas, many precocious Händel singers have emerged. Sadly, so, too, have a number of singers who should have left Händel repertory to their more suitably-talented colleagues. Some of the most successful Händelians of previous generations—Dame Janet Baker, Margreta Elkins, Maureen Forrester, Monica Sinclair, and Sarah Walker, for example—were those who did not approach Händel’s music in isolation. Alice Coote is another singer for whom the road to singing Händel is not a dead end: rather, it is a scenic route that curves through four centuries of music for the mezzo-soprano voice. The kind of adaptability demanded of modern singers, unprecedented in the history of opera, often breeds a disheartening anonymity, a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ plainness that holds listeners at arm’s length. In the performances on this disc, Alice Coote enclasps Händel’s music with the full strength of her artistry, and these eleven arias lavishly reciprocate her embrace.

HANDSOME HÄNDEL: (from left to right) Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, and Alice Coote as Sesto in Georg Friedrich Händel's GIULIO CESARE at the Metropolitan Opera, April 2013 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]Non ha più che temere: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Sesto in David McVicar’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Giulio Cesare at the Metropolitan Opera in April 2013 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]