26 May 2009

CD REVIEW: Franz Joseph Haydn – L’INFEDELTÀ COSTANTE [Opera Arias & Overtures] (Anna Bonitatibus, mezzo-soprano; deutsche harmonia mundi)

Bonitatibus_Cover FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809) – Opera Arias & Overtures; Anna Bonitatibus, mezzo-soprano; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis [recorded 10 – 13 February 2008 at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo (Italy); deutsche harmonia mundi/Sony BMG CD 88697 32632 2]

[Included on this disc are sinfonias and arias from five of Haydn’s operas (La fedeltà premiata, Orlando Paladino, La vera costanza, L’Infedeltà delusa, and L’Isola disabitata), arias composed by Haydn for insertion into Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s L’Isola di Alcina and Giovanni Paisiello’s La frascatana, and Haydn’s remarkable cantata for solo voice and fortepiano Arianna a Naxos.]

One of the most significant of the anniversaries that are marked in 2009 is the bicentennial of the death on 31 May 1809 of Franz Joseph Haydn, an event that not only extinguished one of the greatest musical talents the world has known but also effectively brought to its close the Classical period in European concert music.  Haydn’s long life meant that his career spanned the entire tumultuous second half of the eighteenth century, his first works having been composed when Händel remained active (not least in the composition of sacred oratorio, a genre to which Haydn would contribute one of its greatest masterpieces) and his last works ushering in early Viennese Romanticism as developed by Beethoven and Schubert.  Detailed analysis reveals that Haydn’s legacy as ‘father’ of the modern symphony and ‘inventor’ of the string quartet as it is now understood is not altogether accurate, as both forms existed at least fundamentally prior to the start of Haydn’s career, but the suggestion that Haydn perfected the Classical symphony, advancing the form with 106 of his own symphonies from Baroque foundations to the towering works of nineteenth-century composers, and string quartet, as well as having developed sonata form in perhaps the most influential manner among eighteenth-century composers, is not unfounded.

Not unlike those of his most celebrated contemporary Mozart, Haydn’s operas are transitional works, adopting elements of Baroque opera (particularly in earlier scores) and gradually integrating stylistic innovations that opened the road leading to Fidelio and Der Freischütz.  Even now, when scholars almost universally acknowledge them as important and beautiful works, Haydn’s operas are largely unknown, familiar to most listeners solely from the enterprising Philips series of the Esterháza operas, conducted by Antal Doráti, and a smattering of other recordings.  Lovers of Haydn’s vocal music who hoped for an impressive crop of new (or even reissued) recordings to mark the bicentennial of the composer’s death have been offered only a new Orlando Paladino (also on deutsche harmonia mundi), conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and recorded in concert in 2005.  [NOTE: The Orfeo label has announced the release of a new disc of Haydn’s operatic arias (along with one from the oratorio Il Ritorno di Tobia) featuring Slovakian soprano Simona Šaturová and the NDR Radiophilharmonie, conducted by Alessandro de Marchi, due out in Europe on 29 June.]

The Haydn enthusiast owes a wealth of gratitude to deutsche harmonia mundi for the present disc from Il Complesso Barocco, temporarily taking a respite from their usual Baroque repertory.  Surprisingly, Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco find in the music of Haydn recorded on this disc a remarkably congenial playground for their enthusiastic virtuosity.  The four overtures included tinkle and thump along gloriously, the ‘bite’ of the period instruments’ collective and individual sonorities bringing a fresh profile to the carefully-constructed rhythms with which Haydn framed his music.  Especially in the frequently delightful passages for horns and woodwinds, Il Complesso Barocco sound even finer than in their recent Händel recordings.  Mr. Curtis gets at the heart of every number, shaping the overtures with bounce and precision and approaching every recitative and aria with in-depth attention to both music and text.  The challenges of maintaining the impetus of a performance of a complete score from start to finish abated in the context of this recording, Mr. Curtis proves wonderfully adept at making maximum impact in each piece without overinflating the natural dimensions of the music.

The arias on the disc represent the finest elements of Haydn’s operatic writing, vocal lines both supported with the finesse one might expect from a master symphonist and composed with a grace that suggests innate understanding of the human voice.  Listening to these arias, mostly impassioned outbursts from put-upon heroines (the finest of which is arguably Rosina’s ‘Dove fuggo, ove m’ascondo’ from La vera costanza, so memorably sung on records by Jessye Norman), it is astonishing to note the frequency with which a snippet of a melodic line, the delicacy of an accompaniment, or the progression of a phrase calls to mind Mozart, whose operatic sensibilities are at least conventionally thought to far exceed those exhibited by Haydn.  It would be difficult to dispute the argument that Mozart’s operas reveal more deeply-felt, humanistic musical characterization than those of his contemporaries.  Nevertheless, the arias recorded on this disc reveal that Haydn’s operas at their best suffer nothing in comparison with the works of his contemporaries, Mozart included, as music per se.

The credit for this impression belongs almost solely to Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus, a young singer whose darkly sensuous voice is somewhat reminiscent of Cecilia Bartoli’s, though richer and more even in production across a wide range.  Ms. Bonitatibus has proven herself as a Baroque singer of the first order on stages throughout Europe, as well as on critically-acclaimed recordings (including Andrea Marcon’s spirited and touching recording of Vivaldi’s Andromeda liberata).  Haydn’s arias do not provide quite the coloratura hurdles Ms. Bonitatibus encounters in her Baroque repertory, but the technical demands of the music on this disc are formidable, not just in bravura passages but equally in those demanding aristocratic poise.  There are, in fact, passages among these arias that would not seem out of place were they uttered by Mozart’s Contessa or Fiordiligi.  In these passages, Ms. Bonitatibus’ voice radiates the calm musicality that makes of simple melodies exquisite expressions of human emotions.  When passions ignite and the music boils, Ms. Bonitatibus rises to every challenge, her technique encompassing fleet, unaspirated traversals of roulades, leaps of wide intervals, and an impeccably-formed trill.  Ms. Bonitatibus’ singing suggests a near-infinite field of possibilities in this repertory, not least Haydn’s fire-breathing but compellingly vulnerable Armida.

His prowess in opera notwithstanding, it may be that Haydn reached his pinnacle of expression through operatic vocalism in his cantata Arianna a Naxos, an exploration of the mythological abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus.  Essentially an opera in miniature (and, in both its musical quality and depth of emotional involvement, not unlike Monteverdi’s great Lamento d’Arianna), Haydn put the best of his artistry into the cantata, composing music that in its mythological grandeur and timeless pathos stands worthy of comparison with the larger-scale works in similar veins by Gluck and Berlioz.  Accompanying Ms. Bonitatibus at the fortepiano, Mr. Curtis proves a very able, even inspired partner, allowing Ms. Bonitatibus ample room in which to expand her lines and pushing only when the music suggests that the hectic fury of Ariadne’s thoughts races against her heartbreak.  Ms. Bonitatibus sings with an intensity that fully reveals the stature of the music and also takes the listener on Ariadne’s journey from bewilderment to despair.  Ms. Bonitatibus accomplishes this with tone both plangent and piquant, the words forward and on the breath without taking precedence over the music.  For this performance alone this disc is indispensible, as much to those who doubt Haydn’s value as a composer of vocal music as to those who appreciate Haydn’s music without compromise.

With sharp, articulate playing and singing of such merit, a more fitting bicentennial tribute to Haydn’s vocal music than this disc is unimaginable.  It may be hyperbole to suggest that the arias performed in this recital will prompt listeners and impresarios to seek out the complete scores of the operas represented, but it is virtually impossible to imagine this disc collecting dust on the shelves of lovers of superb singing.

21 May 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – HARPSICHORD SUITES, 1720 (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Delos)

Vinikour_Cover Georg Friedrich Händel (1685 – 1759) - ‘GREAT’ SUITES FOR HARPSICHORD, 1720 (HWV 426 – 433), & CHACONNE IN G MAJOR (HWV 435): Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [recorded at First Scots Presbyterian Church, Charleston (SC), in 2008; Delos DE 3394]

Händel’s 1720 suites for harpsichord have been at the peripheries of the performance and recorded repertories of many of the most celebrated keyboardists of the twentieth century, players as diverse as Glenn Gould and Thurston Dart, who performed the suites on a large variety of instruments ranging from period harpsichords to modern concert grand pianos. In music for the harpsichord, questions of which approaches are and are not properly stylish are not quite so prominent as with Baroque operas: knowing that a composer intended his work for the harpsichord, the construction of the instrument and its quintessential method of tonal production dictate to a certain degree the manner of execution required of the player. Music composed for the harpsichord invariably demands great dexterity, not merely in rapid-paced display pieces but also in slower, more thoughtful pieces (which, in the custom of the Baroque, often adopt dance forms) in which articulation is an important device of interpretation. This is perhaps more true of Händel’s harpsichord music than that of his closest rivals (Johann Sebastian Bach excepted). Händel’s music always displays a ‘public face,’ as it were, but differs from the music of many other Baroque composers in that the fugal complexities and intricate ornaments are not solely sequins sewn onto the garment so that the wearer sparkles in the glare. Even the most extravagant bravura passages serve an emotional purpose. Whatever the context of a performance or recording of Händel’s harpsichord suites, it is upon the player’s realization of this elusive dichotomy that success relies.

An important lesson learned from Baroque opera is that it is no easy task to sort through the technical hurdles of difficult music in order to discern – and, hopefully, convey to the listener – the interpretive significance of the difficulties. It is in this vein that this recording achieves its greatest accomplishments. The consummate master of his chosen instrument (in the case of this recording, a copy of a 1739 Johann Heinrich Gräbner harpsichord constructed in 2001 by John Phillips), Mr. Vinikour’s technical prowess need hardly be mentioned: every requisite element of a great harpsichordist is decidedly and reliably in place. This recording is not merely the work of a great player, however, but likewise of a tremendously gifted artist.

Throughout the performances preserved on these discs, Mr. Vinikour ideally captures the inherent spirit of each movement. Passages of dazzling technical difficulty are rendered with exhilarating ease. Yet, when the cast of the piece reveals to the listener that exhilaration is not the intent, Mr. Vinikour is capable of communicating through the inflections of his playing that the music is difficult, frustratingly and maddeningly so, explosions of anger and temper expressed as deftly as murmurs of joy and tenderness. A popular criticism of Baroque music is that it is academic, formulaic, and emotionally void except in simplistic depictions of single emotions played against one another for basic effects of contrast. Mr. Vinikour’s performances of Händel’s harpsichord suites resoundingly contradict these assertions, however, and prove that these are not ‘miniature masterpieces’ (a term often applied contemptuously) but masterful works on any scale of comparison.

As he displays in all of his performances and recordings, it is obvious from the start that Mr. Vinikour’s extensive experience as an accompanist for the finest instrumentalists and singers, as well as impressive achievements as a chamber musician, has informed his perception of phrasing. Unlike many players in music of this nature, Mr. Vinikour’s playing speaks in musical paragraphs rather than in disjointed clauses. The insightful grasp of the overall structure and both thematic and emotional progressions of a piece enables Mr. Vinikour to punctuate his playing appropriately, never leaving dangling participles of notes that seem pasted on. There is a reason for every note, and Mr. Vinikour’s playing reveals this in a way that never manipulates or imposes on the music, a rare experience in which the player convinces the listener that the expressive nuances of the music fully justify its formidable technical difficulties.

These suites are indisputably special for they represent Händel composing for a solo instrument of which he was an acknowledged master. It is therefore easy to view these suites as remarkably significant works, and it is beyond doubt that they exhibit Händel’s extraordinary ability for challenging the boundaries of the musical idioms he knew so well. Listening to Mr. Vinikour’s performances on these discs, every idiomatic challenge met head-on and won heroically, the essence of Händel’s musical sensibility seems lovingly revealed.  Even amidst the continuing revival of interest in Händel’s music in the world’s concert halls, opera houses, and recording studios, this recording is exceptional in equally confirming the statures of the composer, his music, and the player who has chosen to explore it, and in reminding the Baroque-saturated public that music published in 1720, when entrusted to the right hands, is no less inventive and moving than any music created in the three centuries that have followed.

17 May 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – ALCINA (J. DiDonato, M. Beaumont, S. Prina, K. Gauvin, K. van Rensburg, V. Priante, L. Cherici; DGG/Archiv)

Alcina_cover GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Alcina, HWV 34: J. DiDonato (Alcina), M. Beaumont (Ruggiero), S. Prina (Bradamante), K. Gauvin (Morgana), K. van Rensburg (Oronte), V. Priante (Melisso), L. Cherici (Oberto); Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis [recorded in the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, near Viterbo (Italy), during September 2007; DGG/Archiv 477 737 4]

In approaching Alan Curtis’ new studio recording of Alcina, first performed in 1735 during the first season in which Händel’s company occupied the Covent Garden Theatre, I have been listening also to a 1983 performance from Sydney with three of Australia’s most pioneering Händelians, Dame Joan Sutherland (whose performance in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1960 production for Venice’s Teatro La Fenice helped to revive interest in Alcina), Margreta Elkins (in Carestini’s role of Ruggiero), and Lauris Elms (as Bradamante, sung in the first performance by Maria Caterina Negri). The logical expectation is that the stylistic distance between the Sydney performance, conducted (of course) by Richard Bonynge, and Alan Curtis’ recording should be immense, a chasm of musicological progress rather than a mere passage of forty-seven years. I shall raise no argument against those who suggest that Mr. Bonynge’s particular rhythmic gifts were better suited to balletic than to operatic scores. Mr. Curtis, on the other hand, boasts three decades of experience conducting Händel operatic performances throughout the world, performances that at least theoretically incorporate scholarship on performance practices dating from Händel’s lifetime. I am surprised, however, to note the degree to which the Sydney performance offered vocalism even the most vitriolic purist would be hard-pressed to meaningfully denigrate. Dame Joan Sutherland, in 1983 well into the autumn of her career, remained on superb form, the voice still beautiful, limpid, and astonishingly agile. The murky diction of the past minimized to a great degree, Ms. Sutherland sang with disarming poise and complete command of the style. There are no interpolations on high to distort the vocal lines, and ornaments are kept within reasonable limits. Ms. Elkins, who within months of this Alcina performance sang a near-ideal Brangäne opposite Rita Hunter’s Isolde, is no less ideal as Ruggiero, the coloratura dispatched with complete ease and the tone in Ruggiero’s great aria, ‘Verdi prati,’ like polished silver. Ms. Elms, who also made a specialty of Wagner roles alongside Rita Hunter in Sydney and Melbourne, embodied Bradamante with conviction and impressive technique. The orchestra were an over-sized and rather imprecise modern ensemble, the chorus seemed large enough in numbers for a Mahler performance, and the secco recitatives were dutifully accompanied by harpsichord-only continuo that managed to sound both dated and fussy. Still, there is in this performance an unmistakable sense of the truest spirit of Händel singing. Händel’s operas are not unlike those of every other important composer for the genre in that they benefit incalculably from great singing. Nothing sounds pale, inappropriate, or unstylish about the singing that entertained that enthusiastic Sydney audience in 1983, and the charms of Alcina were revealed anew.

To an extent that surpasses many of his other scores, Händel brought to Alcina melodic inspiration of the highest order. Baroque music is often tremendously impressive in the moment but less memorable from a melodic perspective than the scores of later composers, beginning with Gluck and Mozart. Alcina upsets this trend, proving in at least a quarter of its arias to be of extraordinary melodic distinction. This accomplishment seems the more remarkable when measured against the fact that Alcina makes use of much recycled material, not only by Händel himself but also – in shrewdly adapted and reworked forms – by Bononcini, Keiser, and Telemann. In this performance, Alan Curtis is sensitive to this uncommonly generous vein of melody, and more than in certain other instances among his discography he allows the music to speak for itself. Alcina played for eighteen performances during its initial run, after all, and was one of the greatest successes of Händel’s operatic career.

Il Complesso Barocco are, as they have shown in virtually all of their recent recordings, among the finest period-instrument ensembles active today. The group achieve what Händel would surely have expected: every player a virtuoso in his own right, each contributes to a carefully-blended whole that produces sounds that, specific questions of historical accuracy aside, are wholly appropriate for the music. Mr. Curtis draws on both the quality of the music and the experienced mastery of his players to preside over a performance that is eloquently phrased and perfectly tailored to complement the strengths of his cast.

Much has been and will be written about the performance of the title role on this recording, not least by the singer herself, American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, in her insightful and engaging blog. On records, Alcina has been interpreted in widely varying manners by Dame Joan Sutherland, Arleen Augér, Renée Fleming, and Anja Harteros – very different singers but all indisputably sopranos. Despite the occasional misappropriations of high-flying embellishments, an examination of the score of Alcina reveals that the specified tessitura for the title role ascends only to top A, a note well within the range of most mezzo-sopranos (and even some exceptionally well-trained countertenors!). Händel composed the role for Anna Maria Strada del Pò, an accomplished soprano described by the contemporary librettist Paolo Rolli as a ‘copy of Faustina [the renowned soprano Faustina Bordoni] with a better voice and better intonation,’ and a trusted singer for whom Händel composed several of his finest soprano heroines. Taking these considerations into account, the apparent conclusion is that the challenge for a mezzo-soprano in singing Alcina must be more an issue of coloration and timbre than of command of the tessitura.

Ms. DiDonato, one of the finest young singers on the circuit now, possesses a rich but not heavy voice that, though wonderfully effective in fiery mezzo-soprano roles both male and female, has subtle hints of a lyric soprano’s ease in the upper register. The wondrous security of Ms. DiDonato’s technique is well-known through her previous recordings, not least her assured Radamisto (also recorded with Alan Curtis). Ms. DiDonato shares with her esteemed predecessor Dame Joan Sutherland a phenomenal, instrumental trill, and she radiates – in this performance, at least (fondly recalling that many of her performances in Händel operas are of male roles) – the same luscious femininity brought to Alcina’s music by Arleen Augér. As was suggested before, neither the technical hurdles nor the tessitura of the role pose problems for Ms. DiDonato, so attention focuses on her interpretation of the role. It is in this regard that Ms. DiDonato accomplishes her greatest feat in this performance. Gone are the distractions of pasted-on top notes, over-elaborate cadenzas, and excessively busy ornaments devised with the goal of delighting canary fanciers. Ms. DiDonato gives us an Alcina for whom every roulade is a desperate attempt at clinging to a mirage, and it has never been more clear in a recorded performance of this opera that Alcina is sincerely, madly in love with Ruggiero. This is an Alcina who is first a woman and then a sorceress, a passionate lover for whom violence is the means to which circumstance forces her. Efforts at psychologically analyzing the fairy-tale characters in Baroque opera are a perilous game that is lost far more often than it is won, but Ms. DiDonato’s performance proves that everything we are meant to know – and feel – about Alcina, as well as what she knows and feels about herself, was locked away by Händel in the music. Nowhere more poignantly than in her singing of the towering ‘Ombre pallide’ does Ms. DiDonato prove that she has found the key. Ms. DiDonato creates an Alcina who earns the listener’s pity because she knows herself too well and loves too much; no raging monster for whom jealousy is the presiding impetus. All of this should not detract for one moment from the fact that, judging by any standard, Ms. DiDonato’s performance is quite simply a sublime stretch of singing.

Young Spanish mezzo-soprano Maite Beaumont has been an impressive singer since she emerged on the international scene, every successive performance seeming to gain in vocal and dramatic strength. She (singing Zenobia) and Ms. DiDonato generated both sensuality and sparks in Radamisto, and Ms. Beaumont builds upon that accomplishment with her singing of Ruggiero in this performance. Originally composed for the high mezzo-soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini, Ruggiero is a formidably difficult role that contains one of Händel’s most famous arias, the aforementioned ‘Verdi prati.’ Ms. Beaumont, while not immediately suggesting the role’s masculinity, makes light of every challenge, singing firmly and expressively from start to finish. As in Radamisto, Ms. Beaumont combines very effectively with Ms. DiDonato, not least in the fantastic terzetto ‘Non è amor, né gelosia.’ Ms. Beaumont matches the spirit of Ms. DiDonato’s Alcina by creating a Ruggiero who is equally passionate and genuinely in love: the opera’s tragedy centers on the fact that Ruggiero’s love is for Bradamante, his betrothed, rather than for Alcina. Ms. Beaumont avoids the easy trap of shaping Ruggiero as a narrow-minded warrior who priggishly rejects Alcina’s affections. The effectiveness of Alcina as a whole is heightened when both Alcina and Ruggiero are sympathetic figures whose actions are motivated by love. As with Ms. DiDonato, the expressive power of Ms. Beaumont’s performance is increased by the fact that her singing is unfailingly wonderful.

Here singing Bradamante, Sonia Prina is back on the form from which she deviated somewhat in Ezio. [The present performance was recorded a year before the Ezio recording was taped, incidentally.] As with Cornelia in Giulio Cesare, there is particular significance when Händel assigns a low female voice to a female character. This is a woman to be taken seriously in her suffering, her desire for revenge, and her rejoicing. Ms. Prina, the dark color of her voice expertly enveloping such a part, sings with her usual distinction, verbal bite, and virtuosic aplomb, tossing off her divisions vehemently and expressing with great impact the depths of Bradamante’s despair. It is often possible to wonder, in the context of performances of the opera, why Ruggiero would be so devastated at jilting Bradamante in favor of Alcina. Though faced with an unusually alluring Alcina, this Ruggiero’s fidelity is warranted by Ms. Prina’s touchingly persuasive Bradamante.

Morgana, Alcina’s sister, is a character whose duplicity is more pronounced than that of the other characters, and her music – crowned by the famous ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ (until recently almost always poached by Alcina) – reflects this ambiguity with gorgeously lamenting arias alternating with brilliant displays of flighty bravura. Soprano Karina Gauvin makes light going of ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ but ultimately lacks the sparkling brilliance brought to it by Joan Sutherland (having stolen the aria) and Natalie Dessay. In her more pensive numbers, Ms. Gauvin sings well, displaying welcome ease. There are moments at which a slightly more substantial tone would also be welcome. Singing with finesse is not quite the same thing as singing with involvement, and Ms. Gauvin does not achieve the same connection with her role as her high-voiced colleagues display. It may be that Ms. Gauvin brings too much refinement to a character who ideally requires more grit in order to be fully convincing. Ms. Gauvin’s expert singing compensates for any small dramatic shortcomings, however, and her performance taken as a whole withstands comparisons with any of her recorded rivals.

As in many of Mr. Curtis’ recordings, this performance gains considerably from top-quality work by very good singers in secondary roles. Singing Oberto, originally composed for William Savage (at the time of Alcina still singing as a boy soprano and, judging from the music that Händel composed for him, obviously a phenomenally gifted one), soprano Laura Cherici is convincingly boyish but also brings off Oberto’s challenging vengeance aria commandingly. Vito Priante, singing Melisso, turns in a vocally sturdy and dramatically effective performance, upholding his part in every scene in which he appears. As Oronte, South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg again proves himself to be one of the most gifted singers active in Baroque repertory. His voice raptly beautiful but capable of bracing strength, he makes every dramatic point without ever compromising his musical confidence. Oronte’s ‘Un momento di contento,’ usually an awkward stumbling block in the opera’s progression, is in Mr. van Rensburg’s performance a charming respite.

Many of the Händel operas recorded during the past decade, even when they have received recordings of very high quality, have required certain apologies for lapses in inspiration, dramatic (or poetic) vicissitudes, or longueurs. Alcina necessitates no apologies. Though composed at a time in which Händel was already enjoying great success with English oratorios, Alcina represents Händel at his most inspired, matching music of consummate beauty with dramatic situations that are cunningly human despite their fantasy. This recording brings that humanity to the foreground more perceptibly than any other recording of the opera, and it does so through performances that are as stylish and vocally exciting as they are emotionally engaging. This recording improves upon virtually everything Alan Curtis has done on records and unites a cast of talented, committed singers who understand not only the stylistic idiom but also the vital importance of singing not strings of notes but phrases of universal sentiments. If Joyce DiDonato’s Alcina was an experiment, it has succeeded. She has created for posterity an Alcina as sumptuously sung and, more importantly, as gloriously, fascinatingly alive as there ever is apt to be.

12 May 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – EZIO (A. Hallenberg, K. Gauvin, S. Prina, M. Andersen, A.Z. Giustiniani, V. Priante; DGG/Archiv)


GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Ezio, HWV 29: A. Hallenberg (Ezio), K. Gauvin (Fulvia), S. Prina (Valentiniano), M. Andersen (Onoria), A.Z. Giustiniani (Massimo), V. Priante (Varo); Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis [recorded in the Teatro Comunale di Lonigo (Italy), during September 2008; DGG/Archiv 477 807 3]

When Ezio was first performed during the 1732 season, most of the operas upon which Händel’s reputation as a composer with a particular genius for opera rests were in the past, with a few notable exceptions (Alcina and Ariodante, in particular).  Receiving only five performances during its initial run (and never enjoying revival during Händel’s lifetime), Ezio failed to make an impression on the London audiences and further suggested, not least to Händel, that interest in Italian opera was waning to the extent that composing opere serie in the manner upon which Händel exercised his talents could no longer prove profitable.  Still, the premiere of Sosarme four weeks later was more successful, achieving eleven performances before capacity crowds, and restoring Händel’s confidence to a degree.

The liner notes by Dorothea Schröder that accompany Alan Curtis’ new recording of Ezio suggest that, based upon a contemporary assessment of the score (in which an anonymous pamphleteer deemed Ezio ‘most Masterly’ and Sosarme ‘most pleasing’), London audiences in 1732 were little prepared and perhaps even less inclined to enjoy a ‘masterly’ score such as Ezio, one in which exquisite music (performed by what was a magnificent cast: the famous alto castrato Senesino as Ezio, Anna Maria Strada del Pò as Fulvia, contralto Anna Bagnolesi as Valentiniano, contralto Francesca Bertolli as Onoria, tenor Giovanni Battista Pinacci as Massimo, and Händel’s beloved basso Antonio Montagnana as Varo) took precedence over a libretto that presented a conventionally convoluted tangle of ambitions, changing loyalties, and amorous intrigues.  This may be oversimplifying the explanation for the opera’s relative failure, but the libretto (an anonymous adaptation of a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that would later also be set by Gluck) presented problems that could hardly have been overcome with even the most adventurous music in the Baroque idiom.  It is almost certain that Händel recognized this reality.  He nonetheless applied the finest of his art to Ezio and produced a score that is both inventive and impressively distinguished.

It is perhaps important in striving to understand the reception Ezio received from its first audiences to consider the fact that the nature of Händel’s writing for the name-part further jeopardized the already-deteriorating relationship between the composer and Senesino.  It can be conjectured that, by the winter of 1732, Senesino – disenfranchised with Händel’s waning fortunes and sharp temperament – already had in his mind the defection to Porpora’s Opera of the Nobility that he would undertake in 1733.  The prospect of direct competition with the great Farinelli (who would join Porpora’s Company in 1734) was surely stressing for Senesino, and Händel was increasingly devoting his musical energies to producing music of emotional rather than vocal brilliance (and, with both Deborah and Athalia on the horizon in 1733, English oratorio rather than Italian opera).  With Ezio, Händel presented Senesino with a role that lacked an easily excerpted tour de force aria in which the full range of the star singer’s arsenal of bravura stunts was displayed.  True cognoscenti being as rare in Händel’s time as they are in our own, the overwhelming majority of Händel’s audiences attended Händel’s operas in order to hear Senesino in his element, expressing heroic sentiments through cascades of fiendish coloratura.  In that regard, both Senesino and London audiences were surely disappointed by Ezio.

This is not to say that Ezio lacks opportunities for extravagant vocal display.  There are fearsome difficulties throughout the score, but more prevalent are moments of reflection and thoughtful beauty, not least the ‘mad’ scene for Fulvia in the final act.  Whether or not Händel consciously sought to minimize the dramatic muddles inherent in the libretto by focusing on composing music of emotional directness, he managed – as, to an event greater extent, in Serse – to produce a score in which bravura passages emerge as natural progressions of the musical lines and the overall emphasis is on well-articulated psychological development.

It has been in scores of this nature, in which brilliance of execution could be said to matter less than the soulfulness of the approach, that Alan Curtis has occasionally faltered in past.  The integrity of Curtis’ scholarship, honed through his tenure at the University of California at Berkeley, can hardly be questioned, nor should it be forgotten that Curtis conducted in 1978 the groundbreaking recording of Händel’s Admeto that is widely considered the first step on the path leading to the historically-informed performance practices now enacted.  Curtis has countered his most impressive accomplishments with occasions of questionable insight: in short, the results have sometimes been considerably less meritorious than the thoughts that informed them.  Passages of great emotional significance have seemed bland or even perfunctory, impediments to the next opportunities for vigorous virtuosity.  Comparing entries in Curtis’ operatic discography suggests that this tendency is minimized when Curtis has at his disposal truly exceptional singers capable of tempering his musical anxiety by giving accounts of overtly emotional music that warrant greater pause.  This is evident, above all, in Curtis’ recordings of Radamisto and Alcina, both of which benefit musically and dramatically from the participation of the superb Joyce DiDonato.  Curtis knows how an opera by Händel ought to go, however, and he and his Il Complesso Barocco remain in Ezio as impressive and precise as they have been proved to be elsewhere in producing top-quality playing throughout and especially shaping recitatives in an effective, interesting manner.

In this performance, Curtis has among his cast at least one exquisite singer, another of those mezzo-sopranos to arrive on the operatic scene within the past two decades for whom singing Händel seems completely and gloriously natural.  Here singing Senesino’s title role, Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg continually inspires wonder that Senesino could have been anything but delighted with the music Händel composed for him.  Miss Hallenberg possesses every asset necessary for unqualified success in Händel: complete evenness throughout the range, absolute command of the tessitura, a technique that easily encompasses the florid demands, a timbre that can subtly suggest masculinity without resorting to harshness, and a serviceable trill.  In fact, Miss Hallenberg’s trill is rather more than serviceable, and her technical acumen is allied with a genuinely beautiful voice, fluidly produced.  Throughout the opera, Miss Hallenberg sings with charm, accuracy, and honeyed tone, applying ornamentation that is virtually always interesting without being overwrought.  Even in the context of a score that lacks the opportunities for bravura display found in other Händel operas, Miss Hallenberg contributes singing worthy of comparison with the finest Händel singing on records.

Owing in part to very successful appearances in productions by the Boston Early Musical Festival, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin enjoys a reputation as something of a Baroque prima donna.  Her recordings have created a suspicion, at least for this listener, that something vital is lost in the context of an audio-only recording.  Miss Gauvin’s performance as Fulvia in this recording does much to vindicate her reputation and confirm her standing as a very fine practitioner of the craft of Baroque singing, however.  Fulvia’s music culminates in the aforementioned ‘mad’ scene in the final act, and Miss Gauvin rises to the novelty of the music without overdoing the histrionics or blurring the suffering of her character with volleys of interpolated pyrotechnics.  In this performance, Miss Gauvin displays an understanding of the oft-overlooked fact that simplicity is at the heart of Händel’s finest music, and the multifaceted loveliness of Miss Gauvin’s singing is all the more effective for it.

Valentiniano also plays a vital part in the drama (and, one could argue, is even the most important role in Gluck’s setting of the libretto), a fact that is put forth with compelling impact by Italian contralto Sonia Prina.  In the interest of full disclosure, it must be granted that in this performance Miss Prina is not so secure of tone or fleet of execution as she has often been, but it is an unquestionable pleasure to hear a genuine contralto – perhaps the rarest commodity among contemporary operatic voices – in this music (or in any music, for that matter).  What is never a matter for debate is that Miss Prina knows her way round an opera by Händel, every difficulty taken in stride even when the voice is not delivering at full capacity.  Still, turning to the evidence of other Händel recordings that have been released within the past five years or so, it can be said without hesitation that better results could have been had only from Miss Prina on her best form.  Miss Prina also has the benefit of native Italian to her credit, so it is not surprising that she displays slightly greater connection with her role and exploration of Valentiniano’s development.  If she ultimately falls slightly short of her own very high standard, Miss Prina contributes very capably to what is an uncommonly satisfying principal trio.

Mezzo-soprano Marianne Andersen is effective as Onoria but, in truth, little more.  Nothing is embarrassing or incorrect, but both the voice and the performance lack distinction.  Italian tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani has a voice with presence and tonal allure, and he enlivens his recitatives with boldness and native diction.  In Massimo’s arias, though, Mr. Giustiniani disappoints.  Willingness and commitment to the spirit of a particular aria are there in spades, but Mr. Giustiniani’s technique – at least at this point in his career – is not equal to the music.  As with Miss Andersen, nothing is embarrassing, but Mr. Giustiniani’s performance merely suffices when it should excite.  The role of Massimo is a rare instance in which Händel composed a significant operatic role for a tenor, and Mr. Giustiniani’s performance does not fully exploit this despite displaying a basically lovely voice that promises better things.

Italian bass (really more bass-baritone than true bass, in my opinion) Vito Priante offers his typical security and comfort with the style in his performance as Varo.  In fact, Mr. Priante is more impressive in this performance than he has been in a few other of his recent recordings, perhaps because the music Händel composed for Montagnana is of such high quality.  There is some business in the lower register that needs sorting out, but Mr. Priante never falls into the trap of ranting through his more difficult music.  Mr. Priante is a good singer who reliably turns in good performances, but he achieves something better than that in this recording.  If ultimately not the last word on Händel bass singing, it is a thoroughly invigorating, finely-wrought performance.

I leave to musicologists and scholars the tasks of discovering and debating why audiences of more than two centuries ago liked or disliked this or that score.  Whatever the trade-offs we endure in the conventional Verdi and Wagner repertories, we are fortunate to live and listen in an era in which obscure Baroque repertory is explored and recorded with regularity, even when levels of interest and global economic conditions present a grim certainty that a recording such as this Ezio will not sell tens of thousands of copies.  Many of these obscure Baroque scores that are unearthed, dusted off, and played before attentive audiences and studio microphones ultimately deserve their obscurity: there are instances in which, factors of changing tastes aside, audiences were surely right to politely applaud and then forget certain scores.  In the context of a staged performance, a more careful verdict on Ezio might be achieved.  With only this recording to consider, however, Ezio surely seems an opera that, while not of the magnificent quality of Händel’s greatest scores, shines through the haze of nearly three hundred years with ample power to entertain, impress, and even move a modern listener.

Buon compleanno, Signora Giulietta


On 12 May 1910, Italy welcomed a child in whose small form slumbered one of the greatest mezzo-soprano voices opera would enjoy in the twentieth century.  Today celebrating her ninety-ninth birthday, Giulietta Simionato enjoyed a tremendously successful career that garnered a deserved legacy as one of the most celebrated and frequently recorded singers of the mid-century.  Admired as a unfailingly musical singer and respected as a fastidious and always prepared colleague, Simionato inherited the mantel of the great Ebe Stignani in Italian dramatic mezzo-soprano roles.  Since Simionato’s retirement, only Fiorenza Cossotto and Dolora Zajick have truly approached the level of Simionato’s achievements.

Simionato maintained a wide repertory that included Rossini roles (Barbiere di Siviglia, Cenerentola, and L’Italiana in Algeri), bel canto heroines (Bellini’s Adalgisa and Leonora in Donizetti’s Favorita), Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (albeit sung in Italian), Bizet’s Carmen, and Laura in Ponchielli’s Gioconda, in addition to the dramatic Verdi roles (particularly Amneris and Azucena) upon which her fame was built.

It is as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana that Simionato most impresses me, in several recordings that range from the beginning to near the end of her career.  Perhaps most extraordinary is a 1963 live performance from La Scala in which Simionato was partnered by Franco Corelli.  The emotional intensity of the performance is remarkable, but perhaps more astounding is the fact that there are no compromises in the quality of the music-making.  This performance dates from late in Simionato’s career (she made her début at La Scala in 1936 and retired from operatic performance three years after this Cavalleria, in 1966) but everything that Mascagni requires is in place: complete vocal security across a wide compass, untiring dramatic involvement, and a pervading sense of the tragic lurking within the commonplace.  Simionato is, in fact, the only singer I have heard who fully convinces me of the effectiveness of a mezzo-soprano in what I consider to be decidedly a dramatic soprano role.

Simionato is one of the handful of acknowledged great singers of the twentieth century whose artistry genuinely merited the distinction.  On a personal note, Simionato is one of my favorite singers, to whose recordings I turn again and again, confident of the fun of her Mistress Quickly, the insouciance of her Carmen, the grand impetuosity of her Azucena, and the gorgeous poise of her Adalgisa.

Buon compleanno, bella Signora.