09 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - RODRIGO (M.R. Wesseling, M. Bayo, S. Rostorf-Zamir, K. van Rensburg, M.E. Cencic, A.-C. Gillet; Ambroisie)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Rodrigo, HWV 5: M.R. Wesseling (Rodrigo), M. Bayo (Esilena), S. Rostorf-Zamir (Florinda), K. van Rensburg (Giuliano), M.E. Cencic (Fernando), A.-C. Gillet (Evanco); Al Ayre Español; Eduardo López Banzo [recorded at the Arsenal, Metz, France, during March 2007; Ambroisie AM 132]

Perhaps owing its genesis to a request from Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, Rodrigo was Händel’s first opera conceived for and composed in Italy. Likely first performed in Florence in the autumn of 1707, two years before Händel’s second and more celebrated Italian commission, Agrippina (premiered in Venice in late 1709), many aspects of the creation and production of Rodrigo remain mysterious. Until recently, the opera was essentially a musical jigsaw puzzle with significant missing pieces, with only Händel’s autograph score available as a resource for evaluating the musical merits of the work. Händel’s draft exists with several scenes missing, however, necessitating considerable efforts at reconstruction to facilitate any attempt at performing or publishing the score. The Chrysander edition of Rodrigo published in the 1873 Händel-Gesamtausgabe merely reproduced Händel’s fragmentary draft score. Scholarship and attentive musical detective work during the past three decades have revealed meaningful clues, however, among them several of the items missing from the draft score. Careful examination of period sources and the metrical alignment of text to music in other Händel scores has allowed substitution of music from other works for items that even now are still missing (a practice that is not inappropriate, considering that Händel frequently borrowed from his own works and reused ‘hit tunes’ in multiple scores, particularly when different venues were involved), with only minimal quantities of recitative left to be newly composed in order to preserve dramatic continuity in performance (or recording). This painstakingly restored Rodrigo is recorded here for the first time (the previous recording with Alan Curtis leading Gloria Banditelli and Sandrine Piau for Virgin made use of a slightly different reconstruction by Curtis himself) by Eduardo López Banzo and his period-instrument band Al Ayre Español, an enterprising group sponsored in part by the government of the Spanish state of Aragón. [A recording of Händel’s Amadigi di Gaula by López Banzo and Al Ayre Español is also available on Ambroisie.]

Understandably, Rodrigo more closely resembles Agrippina, musically speaking, than Händel’s later, more familiar operatic scores composed for London. Arias are brief for the most part, with fewer da capo arias than would become typical in Händel’s later operas. Allegorical arias comparing human emotions with natural phenomena (revenge or jealousy as a storm-tossed sea, love as a babbling brook or quiet breeze, and the like) are plentiful. Already apparent, however, is Händel’s remarkable – and, among his direct contemporaries, Vivaldi in the occasional instance excepted, virtually unique – gift for cleverly and effectively characterizing individuals within the drama by the style of their music. Heroic characters are given music of virtuosity greater than that of their colleagues, and virtue is rewarded with music of melodic distinction and poise. As in most Baroque operas, Rodrigo deals with various overlapping amorous intrigues, prompting precarious alliances and evolving intentions that are reflected in music that is often ambiguous of spirit but rarely of quality. While not a score of the uncompromising brilliance of Händel’s later operatic masterpieces, Rodrigo is a distinguished and unexpectedly intriguing piece that will reward the attention of those who feel that there is no Händel opera that is wholly without interest.

Maestro López Banzo has the score, whatever its textual mysteries, firmly in hand, conducting with elegance and a sense of the broader structure of the drama. There are moments when tempi seem just slightly slower than the dramatic situations dictate, but López Banzo is successful (as many of his colleagues in this repertory are not) in never pushing his singers beyond their capabilities. One is thankful, even when there are slight reservations about the speeds of particular numbers, that no one is left gasping behind. Al Ayre Español, while not on the level of Les Arts Florissants or Les Musiciens du Louvre, are nonetheless an ensemble of great quality and virtuosity, producing playing that mostly avoids the abrasiveness of some period-instrument groups. The continuo complement is varied in the manner that produces the best, most engaging results for listeners, but there are inconsistencies with the approach: rather than allying a particular continuo instrument to a certain character or a particular style of utterance (accompanying the recitatives of Esilena, the long-suffering heroine, or those expressing tender, remorseful, or dolorous sentiments with a theorbo rather than harpsichord, for instance), recitative accompaniments are alternated in a straightforward fashion, first voice with harpsichord followed by second voice with theorbo, and so forth. An awareness of which character is singing at a given point is clarified by this method, but the voices of the principal singers in this performance are not similar enough to benefit greatly from this clarification. Dramatic continuity is not discernibly damaged (and perhaps some listeners would not even notice were a more thoughtful approach employed) but an opportunity for tightening the cumulative impact of the performance seems missed. More confusing, however, are instances in which the musical structures are undermined by bizarre harmonic progressions produced in the penultimate and final harmonies of recitatives. Scholarship is relatively unanimous in asserting that Baroque practice dictated that the final, dominant vocal note of a secco recitative fell on the penultimate chord of the accompaniment, rather than the final note being sung prior to the sounding of the penultimate dominant and resolving tonic chords. This presumably is the presiding intent in this performance, though Händel in his manuscripts often noted the resolution of the continuo (that is, the dominant and tonic chords) following (as opposed to being concurrent with) the voice’s final note: whether this was an effort at clarity in jumbled, handwritten manuscripts or a conscious preference for the execution of the closing cadence chords is a matter for debate. The continuo is here very freely rendered, particularly by the harpsichord (which is not inappropriate, at least in theory), unfortunately sometimes producing dissonances that are not necessarily inherently unmusical but are decidedly contrary to the harmonic language (even at its most chromatic) native to Händel and his most accomplished contemporaries. The extent to which this is bothersome depends upon the individual response of the listener, but it is difficult to ignore instances in which the harmonic blend of voice and continuo simply sounds wrong (or seems to have been conceived by Ravel rather than by Händel). This detracts somewhat from the overall impression of the dedication that shaped this recording. It does not significantly upset the progress of an interesting performance, however, and it is possible that the effect is exaggerated by the resonance of the recording space.

Singing the roles of the hero and his consort, Rodrigo and Esilena, are mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling and soprano María Bayo, respectively. Ms. Wesseling also sang Amadigi for Maestro López Banzo, a performance in which she displayed an attractive voice and commendable musical integrity. This Rodrigo falls short of the level of achievement she attained in Amadigi. Though the voice remains basically attractive, unsteadiness affects portions of Ms. Wessling’s singing of her principal arias. There is also reason to suspect that the tessitura of the role is slightly low for her. Ms. Wesseling animates her recitatives with involved, alert singing that does much to propel the convoluted story, though, displaying an innate understanding of Händel’s style of developing scenes. Ms. Bayo, a distinctive Spanish soprano whose experience in opera ranges from early repertory through Zarzuela to bel canto and Verdi, is a very good singer with a solid technique that emerges relatively undamaged from her performance of Esilena’s music. Ms. Bayo’s bright timbre, though perhaps not ideal for the role of the languishing, put-upon wife, has ample thrust and ascends into the upper reaches of the role’s tessitura without becoming brittle or worryingly acidic. Her performance, too, suffers from bouts of unsteadiness, and there are occasional problems with phrasing and diction (Italian not being the easiest language for native Spanish-speakers, incidentally). Ms. Bayo is an unintended foil for Ms. Wesseling, proving more effective in arias than in recitatives: their voices do not combine especially well for their pair of duets in the final act, however. Both performances are satisfactory efforts by thoroughly professional artists that, despite inspiring enough reservations to impede complete enjoyment, do not betray the music with which Händel entrusted them.

Singing the role of Evanco, son of the previous king of Aragón (who was killed by Rodrigo), soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet sounds convincingly boyish in recitatives, disclosing a bright voice with a solid core. Ms. Gillet’s singing of her arias is exemplary, every technical challenge met unflinchingly. Dramatically, her performance is thoroughly convincing and, in the opera’s final moments (in which Evanco is united with his beloved and granted the throne of Aragón), even touching.

Evanco’s beloved, Florinda, the spurned mother of Rodrigo’s son (spurned because, following the birth of their child, Rodrigo abandoned her when she insisted that he marry her), is sung by soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, an artist of great vocal personality. Never encountering a word, dramatic gesture, or musical hurdle of which she is not the consummate mistress, Ms. Rostorf-Zamir raises the stakes in every scene in which she appears. Equally accomplished in arias and recitatives, she creates not only a character to be reckoned with but also an impressive sense of a wronged woman, justified in her quest for vengeance, who is battered by circumstance not into complacency but into comprehension of her own motives. How beautiful is her singing of her final aria, sung when she is united with Evanco, ‘Begli occhi del mio ben’ (‘Lovely eyes of my beloved’). Ms. Rostorf-Zamir’s performance is a model of Baroque singing in which she fully reveals the beauty and fledgling genius of the young Händel’s vocal writing.

South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg has, not unlike Ms. Bayo, a varied résumé including roles in Mozart, Verdi, and even Wagner operas. It is for his performances of the music of earlier generations of composers that he is most known, however, and his reputation as a Baroque singer of the first order is confirmed by his performance here. Singing Giuliano, Florinda’s brother, Mr. van Rensburg contributes singing that unpretentiously exhibits complete mastery of the idiom, shaping his recitatives with pulsing momentum that never loses sight of the broader musical phrases and offering in his arias exemplary performances of some surprisingly (because composers of the Baroque era, Händel included, rarely lavished their finer inspirations on tenor roles) beautiful music. In the arias demanding vocal virtuosity, Mr. van Rensburg delivers in spades, deftly managing even the most cruel coloratura passages and offering ornaments that are adventurous and invigorating without risking tastelessness. In arias expressing softer sentiments (which, considering the nature of the character, does not imply tender love songs), there is a comparable softening of the tone and use of a mezza voce that is, in a word, exquisite. Mr. van Rensburg never errs musically and dramatically and, what is very rare not only in Baroque operas but in those of all musical eras, creates a character who is decidedly more than what he is given to sing.

Though granted by the composer (or by what we can ascertain from the remnants of his intentions) only two arias, Fernando – Rodrigo’s general who feigns a change of allegiance by proposing a secret meeting and alliance with Giuliano, only to capture Giuliano in an ambush and deliver him to Rodrigo – plays an important role in the drama. In the second act, he is sent by Rodrigo to broker peace with Evanco by offering Giuliano’s return in exchange for an end to the siege of Seville but pays with his life for his deceptive tactics when Evanco fells him with an arrow before his task is accomplished. This performance of Fernando offers proof of the adage that there are no insignificant roles, only insignificant singers. In a role with only two arias, both of them brief, it would indeed be tempting to cast an insignificant singer. That temptation is avoided entirely in this recording by the casting of the wonderfully talented countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic. Singing with delightfully firm and centered tone, Mr. Cencic never allows the listener to forget that Fernando is a formidable warrior, noble and proud but also capable of stinging treachery. Mr. Cencic brings fire and welcome power to his recitatives and arias, inspiring the desires not only that he had been given by Händel more to do but also that he might have been given a chance to sing Rodrigo. Unfulfilled desires notwithstanding, Mr. Cencic again shows himself to be an artist of important stature who, by the gifts of a truly attractive voice and an uncommon insight not just for singing notes but for shaping roles, is among the very finest countertenors gracing the world’s stages.

Those who love Händel’s music are prone to greeting every new recording of one his operas with unabated appreciation and proclaiming those that are little known rediscovered masterpieces. Rodrigo cannot quite claim to deserve that distinction, but it is a fine work that reveals much about Händel’s early career in Italy and the musical development that led to the undisputed masterworks of his operatic maturity. Questions of scholarship and some few reservations concerning singing and playing aside, this is a performance that offers genuine pleasure and, in the performances of its Florinda, Giuliano, and Fernando, boasts some of the finest singing of Händel’s music to be heard on records.