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.