22 June 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | June 2017: Georg Friedrich Händel — OTTONE, RE DI GERMANIA, HWV 15 (M.E. Cenčić, L. Snouffer, P. Kudinov, A. Hallenberg, X. Sabata, A. Starushkevych; DECCA 483 1814)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | May 2017: Georg Friedrich Händel - OTTONE, RE DI GERMANIA (DECCA 483 1814)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Ottone, re di Germania, HWV 15Max Emanuel Cenčić (Ottone), Lauren Snouffer (Teofane), Pavel Kudinov (Emireno), Ann Hallenberg (Gismonda), Xavier Sabata (Adalberto), Anna Starushkevych (Matilda); Il pomo d’oro; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 22 June - 2 July 2016; DECCA 483 1814; 3 CDs, 203:07; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

England in 1723 was in some ways perhaps not unlike the Holy Roman Empire in the Tenth Century. The death of the heirless Queen Anne in 1714 ended the Stuart dynasty and, according to the anti-Catholic dictates of 1701’s Act of Settlement, conferred the British crown upon a Continental head. In 1723, Anne’s second cousin and successor George I was in the ninth year of his thirteen-year reign and still embroiled politically and socially in defending the legitimacy of the Hanoverian occupancy of the British throne. Attending to his royal duties whilst entertaining London society with a mistress—perhaps his secret wife—as his de facto consort and perennially feuding with his recalcitrant son, the eventual George II, the first King George clung to his adopted throne with Teutonic tenacity. Many of Britain’s political players were none too impressed by the mandated German subjugation of the halls of power, but London’s music lovers welcomed at least one vassal of the Hanoverian court, one whose tenure in the English capital had actually begun in the twilight of Queen Anne’s reign: Georg Friedrich Händel.

Nearly a millennium earlier, the Holy Roman Empire was also governed by a German-born prince, the Saxon Otto II, son of Otto the Great and husband of Theophanu, a niece of the Byzantine emperor. Crowned co-emperor alongside his father by Pope John XIII in 967, the younger Otto’s continued rule after the death of Otto I in 973 was secured. Like that of George I, Otto II’s administration was not fated to be long-lived, extending for only a decade and a few months until the young emperor’s death at the age of twenty-eight. Though the fraction of the Tenth Century during which Otto II sat on the imperial throne was a time of relative calm, the succession of his three-year-old son plunged the Holy Roman Empire into unrest like that against which Otto I fought. Ironically, Otto II’s operatic adversaries, Adalbert of Italy and his duplicitous mother Willa of Tuscany, figured little if at all in the emperor’s affairs: Willa is known to have died in 970, and Adalbert is thought by historians to have followed her in death no later than 975 but likely in 971. Even in the Twenty-First Century, far more is conjectured than actually known about the life of Otto II, but to Britons in the third decade of the Eighteenth Century he must have seemed an apt candidate for musical exhumation.

Premièred at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 12 January 1723, Händel’s opera Ottone, re di Germania bridged the gap between Hanoverian Britain and the Tenth-Century Holy Roman Empire. The timely significance of an operatic tale of the machinations of a Germanic monarch and those supporting or opposing him surely was not lost on London audiences and would likely have ensured some degree of success for the new work, but Ottone conquered London with its music. Writing for an ensemble of world-renowned singers, Händel produced a score of extraordinary quality and inspiration, setting a new standard for his own efforts and paving the way to his annus mirabilis, 1724, in which year he composed Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Rodelinda, and Tamerlano. Intriguingly, much of the opera’s beauty arises from its inherent ambivalence: in Ottone, not even the basest villainy is wholly without noble objectives. Like those of many Eighteenth-Century operatic intriguers, the conniving of Ottone’s players is, depending upon the individual listener’s predilections, either captivatingly or confoundingly convoluted, but the opera’s drama is surprisingly palatable for modern listeners in this exhilarating new DECCA recording. Perceiving the antics of today’s politicians in Ottone’s plot hardly stretches the imagination. If only the voices that bark in legislative debates, press conferences, and incessant media coverage were as alluring as those that sing Händel’s music on these discs!

The scheming of the pseudo-historical figures who sing it notwithstanding, Händel’s music for Ottone is both beautiful and shrewdly characterful, the orchestrations that support the voices in several of the most beguiling arias intensifying the listener’s perceptions of aspects of the personalities that they portray. Dulcetly played by the continuo, the delicate accompaniment to Teofane’s exquisite aria ‘Falsa imagine’ is an example of Händel’s theatrical savvy and musical ingenuity at their most refined: in an aria that only threats of tossing her out of a window are said to have persuaded the first Teofane to sing, the plaintive music conveys the newly-arrived princess’s confusion and trepidation before she utters a word. It is perhaps this heightened atmosphere of musical and dramatic characterization that draws from conductor George Petrou one of his strongest recorded performances. Here leading the first-rate orchestral forces of Il pomo d’oro, Petrou supports the cast in bringing Händel’s characters to life, the tempi that he selects for arias right for both the music and the singers. The volleys of fiery bravura singing that modern listeners expect in Händel’s operas are present in Ottone, but this score shares with Tamerlano an emphasis on introspective contemplation. The vigor with which that contemplation transpires on these discs is evidence of the effectiveness of Petrou’s approach. Owing both to his galvanizing conducting and il pomo d’oro’s fantastic playing, this is the rare Händel recording that is as gripping as any staged performance in an opera house—more than many staged performances, in fact. This is a recording that must be heard by those listeners who believe that Händel’s operas and performances of them are dull.

The cast for whom Ottone was written could only with considerable planning have been rivaled in the Eighteenth Century: such a strong sextet of singers having been assembled for this recording is but one of the many vocal glories of this Ottone. In the opera’s 1723 première, the rôle of Matilda, the title character’s cousin and Adelberto’s intended bride, was sung by Anastasia Robinson, a singer with a constantly-evolving range for whom Händel composed a half-dozen of fine parts including Cornelia in Giulio Cesare. Filling Robinson’s shoes in this performance is Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych. A vibrant presence in recitatives throughout the performance, Starushkevych sings Matilda’s Act One aria ‘Diresti poi così?’ assertively, her technique equal to the demands of Händel’s music and the character’s appetite for revenge. The unique timbre of her voice ensures that Matilda is never lost in the twists of the opera’s serpentine plot. Her finest music comes in Act Two, and Starushkevych phrases ‘Ah! tu non sai quant’il mio cor sospira’ incisively. The immediacy of her delivery of ‘All’orror d’un duolo eterno’ is complemented by the reliable solidity of her intonation. This Matilda duets engagingly with Gismonda in ‘Notte cara,’ rejoicing in the progress of their plan to free Adelberto from Ottone’s clutches. Starushkevych reveals the full depths of her artistry in ‘Nel suo sangue, e nel tuo pianto’ in Act Three, performing the aria with focused tone and dramatic ardor, reveling in the offended lady’s desire for vengeance. Hints of unevenness are occasionally apparent in her vocal production, but her depiction of Matilda in this performance of Ottone induces eager anticipation for Starushkevych’s next appearance on disc.

Having originated the rôle of Pallante for Händel in the 1709 Venetian première of Agrippina, bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi reunited with Händel in London, where he participated in the first performances of several of the composer’s operas. His rôle in Ottone was Emireno, né Basilio, Teofane’s buccaneering brother, and Boschi’s eminently capable successor in this performance is Russian bass Pavel Kudinov. All three of Emireno’s arias are challenging, but Kudinov conquers their difficulties with singing of vigor and virtuosity. In Act One, Kudinov gives an account of ‘Del minacciar del vento sì ride quercia annosa’ that bristles with always-musical machismo. Then, the bass voices ‘Le profonde vie dell’onde’ in Act Two with a keen sense of the character’s motivations, dispatching the divisions with minimal effort. The aria ‘No, non temere, o bella’ in Act Three exposes a less bellicose facet of Emireno, and Kudinov polishes it with cultured, caressing vocalism. Entirely convincing as both a corsair and the brother of the empress consort, Kudinov is most compelling as an exponent of Händel’s music.

The part of Adelberto, the dutiful pawn in his mother Gismonda’s stratagems to usurp both Ottone’s throne and his bride, was created in 1723 by Gaetano Berenstadt, the castrato for whom Händel also wrote Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare and the title rôle in Flavio. As he confirms with his singing on this recording, there is no better-qualified modern interpreter of Adelberto’s music than countertenor Xavier Sabata. The ambivalence of Adelberto’s predicament finds in Sabata’s artistic temperament an ideal outlet, and his music might have been written for the countertenor’s voice. Adelberto’s entrance aria in Act One, ‘Bel labbro, formato per farmi beato,’ is a sublime piece, and Sabata sings it marvelously, his rounded, evenly-produced tones effortlessly tracing the aria’s expansive lines. His account of the vastly different ‘Tu puoi straziarmi’ blazes, ignited by Adelberto’s disdainful defiance of the victorious Ottone. Encountering his rightful fiancée Matilda as he is led away to prison in Act Two, Adelberto expresses his longing to learn fidelity and humility from his betrothed’s example in ‘Lascia, che nel suo viso,’ and Sabata sings the aria mesmerizingly. The sudden burst of sincerity in the spirit of a man whose path in the opera has heretofore been guided by duplicity is movingly evinced by the singer with sounds of tranquil beauty. His character battling meteorological and metaphysical tempests in Act Three, the countertenor traverses ‘D’innalzar i flutti al ciel’ with vocal confidence that enhances the subtlety of the psychological nuances of his portrayal. An antagonist but never truly a blackguard, Adelberto is one of Händel’s most interesting characters: in Sabata’s performance, he is a conflicted but sympathetic man who ultimately wins Matilda’s and the listener’s affections.

It was also in Venice in 1709 that Händel’s artistic path crossed that of soprano Margherita Durastanti, who created the title rôle in Agrippina. When their paths crossed again in London a decade later, she resumed her collaboration with Händel by singing the title rôle in Radamisto, Sesto in Giulio Cesare, and Gismonda in Ottone. So admired was Durastanti in London that her daughter, born in 1721, counted among her godparents the king himself, George I. Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg reminded listeners with her recent solo recording with il pomo d’oro, Carnevale 1729, that she is one of today’s foremost performers of Baroque repertory; an artist and a lady deserving of the admiration of royalty. Even with many wonderful recordings to her credit, Hallenberg’s performance as Gismonda in this Ottone is a milestone. From her first line of recitative, she commandeers the opera’s drama, at once appalling with her character’s incessant lust for power and touching with her genuine love for her son. In Gismonda’s opening aria, ‘Pur che regni il figlio amato,’ Hallenberg’s affinity for the part is affirmed, and she follows this with an animated but utterly stylish performance of ‘La speranza è giunta in porto.’ There is treachery beneath the surface of Hallenberg’s singing of ‘Pensa ad amare,’ but who could refuse anything asked by the source of such refined, appealing sounds? Allowing her maternal instincts a rare moment of exposure as her son is imprisoned in Act Two, Gismonda articulates her impulse to comfort Adelberto in ‘Vieni, o figlio, e mi consola,’ music in which the proud woman’s façade is infiltrated by candor. Here and in the duetto with Matilda, Hallenberg amazes with the intelligence of her vocal acting, never employing tonal beauty, of which she has tapped a seemingly inexhaustible vein, solely for its own sake. ‘Trema, tiranno’ in Act Three is a return to vehemence, and it is sung with potency and precision. Humanity is not a quality that would be immediately associated with Gismonda, but she has greater depth than some singers have bothered to explore. Hallenberg creates a fully three-dimensional character who loves as strongly as she hates and who sings as though it were notes rather than heartbeats that sustain her.

It was as Teofane in the first production of Ottone that Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni made her much-anticipated London début. In the following year, she would achieve artistic immortality with her portrayals of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, Asteria in Tamerlano, and the title rôle in Rodelinda, but it was as Teofane that she won the hearts of musical London. With singing that is both freshly youthful and refreshingly mature, soprano Lauren Snouffer besieges the listener’s heart, and her success is indisputable. Threats of physical violence were required to persuade Cuzzoni to sing Teofane’s first aria in Act One, the exquisite ‘Falsa imagine, m’ingannasti,’ but, Händel’s promise to toss her out of a window having prevailed, the soprano relented, sang the aria to great acclaim, and eventually sang it in virtually every venue in which someone would pay to hear her. If Snouffer required any convincing of the aria’s merit, her own performance of it should have eradicated any doubt. Her phrasing is light but not brittle, and her breath control is undaunted by the long melodic lines. The soprano brings to ‘Affanni del pensier’ energetic and sweetly feminine vocalism that conjures a persona both wounded and strong-willed. Snouffer voices ‘Alla fama, dimmi il vero’ and ‘S’io dir potessi al mio crudele’ in Act Two with abundant imagination and clear comprehension of Händel’s musical language. In Act Three, ‘Benchè mi sia crudele’ is enunciated with emotion as responsive to the text as to the music, and the soprano emits a stream of pure, flawlessly-tuned sound in ‘Gode l’alma consolata.’ She sings her part in the ecstatic duetto with Oronte, ‘A’ teneri affetti il cor s’abbandoni,’ an ancestor of ‘O namenlose Freude’ in Beethoven’s Fidelio, joyously, the voice radiating reclaimed happiness. With a flickering vibrato on sustained tones, Snouffer’s voice recalls that of Toti dal Monte, and her technique is reaching the high level of her natural talent. She is an intuitive singer who realizes that Teofane’s music needs only to be sung honestly and tastefully in order to be extraordinary, and it is the combination of honesty and taste that makes her singing in this Ottone extraordinarily satisfying.

The rôles that Händel wrote for the alto castrato Senesino are some of the most difficult parts in Baroque repertory to cast for modern performances. The brawn in the lower register that contemporary accounts attribute to Senesino eludes many countertenors, and female singers often lack timbres suited to credibly portraying heroic male characters like Orlando, Giulio Cesare, Andronico in Tamerlano, and Bertarido in Rodelinda. As Ottone in this performance, countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić honors Senesino’s legacy with singing of muscle and musicality. Alternately sensual, serene, and rabble-rousing, Cenčić’s timbre possesses both the lower-register resonance and the bold masculinity that Ottone’s music requires. Always an alert, communicative artist in recitatives, Cenčić introduces Ottone’s seductive thoughtfulness with a lushly romantic account of ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore, conforta questo sen.’ [In the 1726 London revival of Ottone, Senesino returned to the title rôle. Unusually for a revival featuring a rôle’s originator, Händel made significant revisions to Ottone’s music, three of which are sampled on this recording. ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore’ was replaced by ‘Io sperai trovar riposo,’ which Cenčić here sings authoritatively, and ‘Cervo altier,’ also thrillingly delivered in this recording’s appendix, was inserted earlier in Act One.] The rollicking ‘Dell’onda ai fieri moti’ is voiced with bravado befitting an emperor.

Braving the dramatic gauntlet of Act Two, Cenčić sings ‘Dopo l’orrore’ charismatically, his technical assurance conveying the emperor’s dignity, and the spectrum of feelings that he imparts in ‘Deh! non dir, che molle amante’ is wondrous. Starting Act Three, the crestfallen Ottone seeks his beloved Teofane, and Cenčić sings ‘Dove sei, dolce mia vita?’ wrenchingly, the rising figurations representing Ottone’s growing despair voiced with particular emphasis. The despondency that grips Ottone in the accompagnato ‘Io son tradito’ floods Cenčić’s voice, and he pronounces the words with deliberateness that evinces shame and disbelief. As the countertenor sings it here, the superb ‘Tanti affanni ho nel mio core’ is the opera’s musical climax, the character’s churning emotions limned by vocalism free from artifice. [Surprisingly, ‘Tanti affanni’ was replaced in 1726 by ‘Un disprezzato affetto,’ a markedly inferior piece which Cenčić nonetheless sings well.] The gleam that his voice projects as he joins Snouffer in ‘A’ teneri affetti il cor s’abbandoni’ evokes irrepressible delight. Cenčić’s performances sometimes overwhelm with flamboyance rather than finesse, but he is an artist whose excesses shroud a profound interpretive vulnerability. In this performance of Ottone, simplicity is the crux of his portrayal. This is an Ottone who lives, one whose life matters to the listener not because he is an emperor but because he is a man, flawed and fascinating.

That Londoners in 1723 embraced a musical portrait of long-dead participants in a thousand-year-old political fracas should substantiate the absurdity of Twenty-First-Century debates about the relevance of opera. It is universally acknowledged that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: so, too, is the relevance of art. It is unlikely that any composer ever put a character upon the stage with the goal of inspiring an observer to say, ‘Yes, of course! He reminds me of Uncle Fred in Des Moines!’ That is not the nature of opera’s relevance. Opera is what those who perform and hear it make of it, and its relevance is born of perspective, not practicality. The musicians involved with this recording make Händel’s Ottone, re di Germania a passionately-sung, sumptuously-played examination of the conflicts between love and ambition. Voices are the essence of opera, and singing of the quality heard on this recording is always relevant.