09 November 2010

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – FLAVIO (T. Mead, R. Joshua, I. Davies, R. Pokupić, H. Summers, T. Walker, A. Foster-Williams; Chandos Chaconne 0773-2)

G.F. Händel - FLAVIO (Chandos Chaconne)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi, HWV 16 – T. Mead (Flavio), R. Joshua (Emilia), I. Davies (Guido), H. Sumers (Teodata), R. Pokupić (Vitige), T. Walker (Ugone), A. Foster-Williams (Lotario); Early Opera Company; Christian Curnyn [recorded at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, 8 – 12 February 2010; Chandos Chaconne 0773(2)]

Two decades have passed since the enterprising countertenor-turned-conductor René Jacobs introduced the record-buying public to Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi, an historically-based opera seria from Georg Friedrich Händel’s spring 1723 season for the Royal Academy of Music, where it was first performed four months after the premiere of Händel’s Ottone with as illustrious a cast as ever the Royal Academy assembled: the castrati Senesino and Gaetano Berenstadt, the remarkable Francesca Cuzzoni, Margherita Durastanti, Anastasia Robinson (it is likely that it was following her performances in Flavio that she clandestinely became Lady Peterborough), Alexander Gibson, and Giuseppe Maria Boschi.  Despite this glittering assemblage of vocal stars and a generally positive reception, Flavio received only twelve performances during Händel’s lifetime, eight during its first production and an additional four during a revival in 1732, and thereafter was not heard again until performed at Göttingen in 1967.  The Jacobs recording, featuring a strong cast, was a compelling first taste of Flavio for modern listeners, with both castrato roles assigned to countertenors, as is the case with this new recording in the Chandos Chaconne Series, and it revealed the opera as one of Händel’s most musically appealing and dramatically concise.  When the operas of so many lesser-known Baroque composers—many of whom were as celebrated as Händel in their times and respective corners of Europe—languish in obscurity, a second recording of any of Händel’s infrequently-performed operas is met with a measure of skepticism, especially when its predecessor on records was as fine as the Jacobs recording.

It is to the credit of conductor Christian Curnyn and his cast of young singers that this recording of Flavio matches and in several respects surpasses the earlier recording on harmonia mundi.  At slightly less than two and a half hours as recorded by Maestro Curnyn, Flavio is among the briefest of Händel’s early operas for London.  So sure is Maestro Curnyn’s pacing of the performance that it seems shorter still.  Secco recitatives, more compressed than in many of Händel’s other serious operas, are shaped with attention to the shifting emotions of the score, characters’ changes of heart given impact through rhythmic elasticity and variety in the continuo (harpsichord, archlute, and theorbo) without seeming overwrought or ridiculous.  The Early Opera Company, a period-instrument ensemble founded by Maestro Curnyn, play with virtuosity and grace throughout the performance, with flautist Lisa Beznosiuk contributing an especially eloquent performance that complements the vocalism she accompanies.  Händel’s operas do not depend upon orchestral brilliance to make their effects, but like its brethren Flavio contains musical beauties that are fully revealed by sensitive playing such as that of the Early Opera Company.  Maestro Curnyn achieves the delicate balance between maintaining the elegance and poise of Baroque-specialist music-making and allowing the music to benefit from the drive and energy more frequently employed in later repertory.  Maestro Curnyn builds upon the scholarship and devotion to the opera established in the Jacobs recording, bringing welcome fire to the bravura passages but also allowing lyrical arias to unfold unhurriedly.  Standing on its own virtues, this Flavio ably and impressively complements the Jacobs recording, a considerable achievement.

Even after three decades of scholarship and ever-increasing attention to historically-appropriate performance practices in Baroque music, the solution to the problem of casting modern singers in roles composed specifically for castrati remains elusive.  Those who advocate for the casting of female singers, mezzo-sopranos mostly (the true contralto having become a great rarity), argue that the music composed for a castrato such as Senesino requires firmness and strength in precisely the tessitura in which the voices of many countertenors are weakest.  There is an undeniable benefit, perhaps more so in the theatre than on records, in having roles sung by singers of the proper gender, however, and in his recording René Jacobs gave both castrato roles to countertenors.  Maestro Curnyn follows suit in this recording, with results that even more strongly make the case for the casting of modern countertenors as Händel’s castrato heroes.  In the role sung in the first production by Berenstadt, Flavio has less to do than the prestige of being the opera’s title character might suggest.  This is not to say that his music is without distinction and difficulties, however, and both of these aspects of Flavio’s part are realized with easy brilliance by young countertenor Tim Mead, an animated but even-toned singer whose technique encompasses all of the challenges posed by Händel’s music.  Especially in ‘Chi può mirare,’ Mr. Mead spins a headily beautiful line that, despite being in alto tessitura, maintains a suave, masculine virility.  In Mr. Meade’s performance, Flavio is a clever and ultimately magnanimous man and audibly a king in command of his realm even when indecisive.

Taking Guido, the role originated by Senesino, is another young countertenor, Iestyn Davies, one of the rising stars of opera and vocal music in the new century.  It is immediately apparent when hearing Mr. Davies in this recording that he is bringing to the music not merely a very beautiful voice but likewise one that is used with sensitivity and abiding good sense.  As with many of the roles composed by Händel for Senesino, Guido’s music is by turns excitingly bravura and meltingly sensual in nature, and it is indicative of Mr. Davies’s level of accomplishment as a singer that his technique easily masters all of the nuances of his music.  Mr. Davies consistently conveys the meaning of the words that he sings clearly and insightfully without ever jeopardizing the musical integrity of his singing.  Mr. Davies’s Guido is more of a lover and statesman than a soldier and schemer, but there is a welcome swagger in the more extroverted numbers that puts forth the character’s masculinity convincingly.  It might be ungraciously suggested that Mr. Davies’s timbre is simply too lovely to fully embody chest-thumping heroic roles, even those originally composed for castrati, and it would not be inaccurate to state that this performance will not resolve in the minds of many listeners the question of whether to cast male or female singers in Händel’s castrato roles.  What Mr. Davies unquestionably accomplishes in this recording is Händel singing that for beauty and emotional depth joins the finest examples of its kind on records.

Both of the roles originally composed for lower-voiced female singers are cast from strength, with Hilary Summers as Teodata and Renata Pokupić as Vitige.  As she has proved in many performances and recordings of a wide repertory, Ms. Summers is that rare thing among contemporary singers—a true contralto.  As Teodata, both the depth of tone and profundity of feeling familiar from Ms. Summers’s performances of Händel roles are in abundance, the voice retaining poise and color even very low in the register.  Dramatically, she never misses a psychological insight offered her by the score, also never resorting to hysterics and, singing richly and with pointing of the text, creating a portrait of a woman unashamed of either her sentimentality or her scheming.  Her lover, Vitige, is sung with vigor by Ms. Pokupić, a young mezzo-soprano born in Croatia.  Seemingly approaching her music fearlessly, Ms. Pokupić sings in a manner that is refreshingly on the breath, the color of the voice taking its impetus from the text.  Coloratura passages are delivered accurately and excitingly, the voice taking on an impressive hint of masculinity in extroverted numbers.  Excellent individually, it is perhaps in their duet that opens the opera, ‘Ricordati, mio ben,’ that these singers are most engaging.  It is rare for a Baroque opera, even one by as committed and astute a dramatist as Händel, to begin with an ensemble number, but Ms. Summers and Ms. Pokupić recognize the significance of this masterstroke of having the opera open with an almost Shakespearean parting of lovers.  Within the beauty and sincerity of their performance is the foundation upon which the opera is built, and it would be difficult not to continue listening in order to learn what the future holds for these alluring lovers.

Teodata is the daughter of Ugone, sung in this performance by young tenor Thomas Walker.  Mr. Walker’s bright tone and impressive florid technique prove equal to all of the stumbling blocks created by Händel’s score, and he does all that he can through inflection and pointed delivery of the text to connect with his basically disinteresting role.  Whatever the dramatic limitations of his role, it is a genuine pleasure to hear a tenor role in any of Händel’s operas sung by such a capable, gifted singer.

The heroine of Flavio is Emilia, another of those long-suffering and ultimately insurmountably noble women familiar from Händel’s mature operas for London.  Indeed, their company—including Almirena in Rinaldo, Asteria in Tamerlano, Rodelinda, and Teofane in Ottone—is equitable to the assortment of soprano heroines celebrated in the operas of Puccini.  Emilia has in ‘Parto, sì; ma non so poi’ one of those sublime arias that seem to suspend time, like Cleopatra’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ and Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’: cut from the same cloth, Händel ingeniously managed to fit each of these arias precisely to the characters and dramatic situations for which they were composed and to ornament them with careful attention to the singers for whom they were intended.  Had Händel specifically composed ‘Parto, sì’ and Emilia’s other arias specifically for her it is doubtful that Rosemary Joshua could have sounded more resplendent in them.  Bringing an uncommonly beautiful and secure voice to her performance, the Welsh-born soprano never loses her footing, vocally or dramatically.  As in so many Händel operas with castrato title heroes, it is truly the soprano heroine about whom the opera revolves: with a weak Emilia as its center of gravity, Flavio would seem lumbering and pointless despite its relative brevity and a score of very high quality even by Händel’s exalted standards.  This performance is fortunate to have at its core one of the most accomplished Händelians of recent years.  Every musical arrow in Emilia’s quiver is sharpened to extraordinary precision by Ms. Joshua’s pointed singing, which is a source of endless grace throughout the performance.  In her Chandos recordings of Partenope and Semele, Ms. Joshua had already presented her Händelian credentials.  With this recording of Flavio, she not only confirms those credentials but emerges as one of the most stylish singers of Händel heard during the ‘Baroque Renaissance’ of the past thirty years.

Completing the cast by singing the role of Lotario, Emilia’s father, is bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, another young singer whose Händelian credentials have been well established through acclaimed performances and recordings.  Singing with imperturbable panache, this artist contributes another performance that ranks with the best recorded examples of Händel singing in the bass register.  Unlike many of the low-voiced singers currently active in Baroque repertory, Mr. Foster-Williams possesses not only the formidable technique required to execute intricate coloratura across a range of two octaves but also the vocal power to roar magnificently as his music requires.  In this performance, both the grandeur of Mr. Foster-Williams’s voice and his artistic finesse are in evidence, not least in the scene in which Lotario dies in his daughter’s presence, slain by Guido.  Mr. Foster-Williams’s performance brings to mind again the adage that suggests that there are no small roles in opera, only ‘small’ artists who fail to seize the opportunities granted by the music given them to sing.  Lotario is not a leading role in Flavio, but as sung by Mr. Foster-Williams—one of the handful of leading basses of his generation—it seems an opportunity missed not by the singer but by the composer and his librettist.

Händel’s Flavio will almost certainly never enjoy the popularity or critical acclaim of his Alcina, Giulio Cesare, or Serse.  At its best—and the score finds its composer almost always at his best—the opera rises to the level of its siblings in the Händel canon.  The concision and clarity of purpose sometimes lacking in Händel’s larger-scaled operas are hallmarks of Flavio, in which even characters who are not as they seem in certain circumstances have obvious, discernible motives.  The confusions of convoluted plot elements and hidden agendas thus set aside, performers and listeners alike are free to focus on the emotional interplay among the characters.  This is no less impressive or involving than in Händel’s most respected operas, those that have regained places in the international repertory.  The case for Flavio was convincingly made twenty years ago by René Jacobs and one of the strongest casts he assembled for a recording of an opera by Händel.  Christian Curnyn is to be respected for taking on this score about which it might have been suggested that the Jacobs recordings left nothing further to be said.  Indeed, Maestro Curnyn and his remarkable cast say the same things but say them differently, sometimes more directly and in numerous instances more touchingly.  It is difficult to fathom how Händel’s first-night cast might have shone in their creation of Flavio, but it is equally difficult to imagine in our own time that a cast with artists such as Rosemary Joshua, Iestyn Davies, and Andrew Foster-Williams giving of their best could be bettered.

An Eighteenth-century engraving by John Vanderbank showing the castrati Berenstadt (Flavio) and Senesino (Guido) and Francesca Cuzzoni (Emilia)