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Handel operas: new releases

by Joel Kasow

PARIS - As we become more aware of theatrical conventions of the past, it becomes easier to stage works which have languished for over 200 years. Whether the stage director tries to recreate an 18th century atmosphere or subjects the work to a modern interpretation, performers are ever more aware of the drama inherent in the music. Two of these recordings (Ariodante and Orlando) are based on stage performances and it shows in the performers' verbal responsiveness. The fact that two others (Riccardo Primo and Il Risurezzione) were performed in concert also contributes to their immediacy.

Ariodante and Orlando are both masterpieces, presenting well-rounded characters and, in the case of the former, a (relatively) comprehensible plot. Orlando's Ariostian origins create additional problems today when the collective memory of an audience is not expected to encompass the twists and turns of 15th century Italian epic poetry. Both the works under discussion were given serviceable performances in 60s RCA recordings for the Handel Society of New York (with Graziella Sciutti, Carole Bogard, Sophia Steffan and Bernadette Greevy, conducted by Stephen Simon). It was only in 1979 that Ariodante was given first class treatment, in a Philips recording recently reissued which in certain areas comes in ahead of the new arrival. The irreplaceable Janet Baker is given a run for her money in the title role by Lorraine Hunt (Harmonia Mundi), but one is too aware in both instances of how hard they have to work for their effects. While Juliana Gondek may be more effectively dramatically, Edith Mathis's Ginevra is much smoother vocally. The young Samuel Ramey's King is far more authoritative vocally than Nicolas Cavallier, while the secondary pair of lovers are also superior on the earlier recording: Norma Burrowes is much richer vocally yet equally apt dramatically as Lisa Saffer, while Ian Partridge outclasses Rufus Müller vocally. It is the casting of James Bowman as the villain Polinesso which makes the Philips difficult to listen to, even then his countertenor sounding artificial and unable to cope with either the range or technical demands of his role. Jennifer Lane's placidity is at least paired with impeccable singing. Nicholas McGegan is not always well-treated in the European press, but his contribution is far from negligible, much more subtle and rhythmically aware than Raymond Leppard. I suppose the Harmonia Mundi is marginally preferable, but I would find it difficult to be without Baker.

Orlando was recorded in the late 1980s by Christopher Hogwood, but the presence of an almost 50-year old James Bowman in the title role renders the performance almost useless. Only Arleen Auger's Angelica and Catherine Robbins' Medoro contribute singing of a higher level. The new Erato recording with William Christie and his forces is a giant step forward, the experience of the stage being almost tangible. Patricia Bardon may not have the presence which her onstage predecessor brought to the role, but she has a much smoother voice and is mistress of the technical complexities. Rosemary Joshua and Rosa Mannion contrast well as princess and shepherdess, the latter's liveliness communicating even on records. It is the sexless voice of Hilary Summers, singing well but blandly, and the bloodless voice of Harry van der Kamp which detract from an exceptional recording. Il Risurezzione was given a number of times by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre in the spring and summer of 1995, and I was bowled over when I heard the performance at the Beaune Festival. Fortunately, the effect transfers reasonably well to one's loudspeakers. Minkowski is not to be faulted nor are the men, Ainsley and Naouri demonstrating that they have few rivals in this music. Naouri's enthusiasm is sometimes to the detriment of smooth vocalism, but the energy is overpowering, over a two and one half octave range. Ainsley's control in some of the most exposed arias is impressive while sung with feeling and beauty of tone. Jennifer Smith's experience almost outweighs the lack of tonal beauty in a role written for the composer's first prima donna. Linda Maguire's occasional lack of control can be overlooked when we realize that the tessitura of her role is lower than comfortable for anyone but Natalie Stutzmann. After an opening Sinfonia, Annick Massis explodes into the work with a brilliant coloratura aria, sustaining an excellent impression throughout. This is the best version of one of Handel's earliest works, and the competition is heavy with Hogwood and Koopman.

The 1995 Beaune Festival also hosted Riccardo Primo where Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques displayed that they too have a contribution to make to contemporary Handelian interpretation. Rousset has chosen one of the operas less likely to be revived on stage because the music in this instance is insufficient to overcome a deficient libretto, one of the handicaps deriving from the Cuzzoni-Bordoni period when roles of equal length - if not of equal weight dramatically - had to be created for the two rival prima donnas. It is relatively easy to form a notion of their respective strong points, as one is given lots of perky music, here brightly interpreted by Sandrine Piau, while the other laments a great deal, here capably sung by Claire Brua. Rousset's real find, however, is Sara Mingardo who sings the title role with a rich voice, evenly produced over a wide range and capable of the most delirious coloratura decorations. The two baritones fare well, Roberto Scaltriti easier to bear when invisible as you don't have to watch him singing out of one side of his mouth, and this is not simple music, while Olivier Lallouette makes the most of his lesser opportunity. This cannot be said of countertenor squawks of Pascal Bertin which are sufficient to turn one against such an artificial sound.

In order to understand what may be lacking in certain singers, one must listen to the phenomenal prowess and communicativeness of Janet Baker, once again available on an EMI reissue of a 1969 recording of two of Handel's dramatic cantatas. Despite the foursquare accompaniments of Raymond Leppard, Baker's vitality leaps out of the loudspeakers, making us regret that her Handel recordings are so few in number (Samson, Messiah, Lucrezia, Judas Maccabeus). And if there is any doubt as to Handel's dramatic gifts, just listen to the start of Armida where two violin parts without a bass line are sufficient to indicate the furious heroine. And one extra pat on the shoulder for EMI who are finally putting their Baker holdings on CD, some of her recordings being - inexplicably - long unavailable.

ARIODANTE - Juliana Gondek, soprano (Ginevra); Lisa Saffer, soprano ( Dalinda); Lorraine Hunt, mezzo-soprano (Ariodante); Jennifer Lane, mezzo-soprano (Polinesso); Rufus Müller, tenor (Lurcanio), Nicolas Cavallier, bass ( Il Rè).

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Freiburger Barockorchester and the Wilhelmshavener Vokalenensemble

Harmonia Mundi 907146.48 (3 cds).

ARIODANTE - Edith Mathis, soprano (Ginevra); Norma Burrowes, soprano ( Dalinda); Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano (Ariodante); James Bowman, countertenor (Polinesso); David Rendall, tenor (Lurcanio), Samuel Ramey, bass ( Il Rè).

Ramond Leppard, conductor
the English Chamber Orchestra and Chorus

Philips 442 096-2 (3 cds).

RICCARDO PRIMO, RE D'INGHILTERRA - Sandrine Piau, soprano (Costanza); Claire Brua, mezzo-soprano (Pulcheria); Sara Mingardo, contralto (Riccardo Primo); Pascal Bertin, countertenor (Oronte); Roberto Scaltriti, baritone (Isacio); Olivier Lallouette, baritone (Berardo).

Christophe Rousset, conductor

Les Talens Lyriques (3cds). Oiseau-Lyre 452 201-2.

ORLANDO - Rosemary Joshua, soprano (Angelica); Rosa Mannion, soprano (Dorinda); Patricia Bardon, mezzo-soprano (Orlando); Hilary Summers, contralto (Medoro); Harry van der Kamp, bass (Zoroastro).

William Christie, conductor

Les Arts Florissants (3 cds). Erato 0630-14636-2.

LA RESURREZIONE - Annick Massis, soprano (Angelo); Jennifer Smith, soprano (Maddalena); Linda Maguire, mezzo-soprano (Cleofe); John Mark Ainsley, tenor (San Giovanni); Laurent Naouri, bass (Lucifero).

Marc Minkowski, conductor

Les Musiciens du Louvre (2 cds). Archiv 447 767-2.

ITALIAN CANTATAS (Ah! Crudel nel pianto mio; Armida abbandonata) - Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano.

Raymond Leppard, conductor
the English Chamber Orchestra.

EMI 7243 4 83603 2 8.

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