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The Glories of Handel Opera

Alcina: Tornami a vagheggiar (amA); Dream Music (nE); Sta nell'Ircana pietrosa tana (doy); Atalanta: Care selve (arr. Gamley) (jry); Berenice: Si, tra i ceppi e le ritorte (ktx); Ezio: Se un bell'ardire(lnB); Giulio Cesare: Piangerò la sorte mia (dsz); Da tempeste il legno infranto (bqy); Orlando: Ah Stigie larve! Già latra Cerbero; Vaghe pupille, non piangete (imA); Riccardo Primo: Atterrato il muro cada (huF); Rinaldo: Armida disperata! … Lascia ch'io pianga (enC); Rodelinda: Io t'abbraccio (bgwy); Dove sei, amato bene? (fvD); Semele: Hence, Iris, hence away (fqy); Serse: Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fu (cpy).
Emma Kirkby (soprano) (a), Joan Sutherland (soprano) (b), Renata Tebaldi (soprano) (c), Teresa Berganza (mezzo-soprano) (d), Bernadette Greevy (mezzo-soprano) (e), Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano) (f), Alicia Nafé (mezzo-soprano) (g), Sara Mingardo (contralto) (h), James Bowman (counter-tenor) (i), Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) (j), Sir Geraint Evans (bass) (k), Forbes Robinson (bass) (l), The Academy of Ancient Music (m), Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (n), London Symphony Orchestra (o), New Philharmonia Orchestra (p), New Symphony Orchestra of London (q), Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna (r); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (s), Suisse Romande Orchestra (t), Les Talens Lyriques (u), Vienna Cantata Orchestra (v), Welsh National Opera Orchestra (w), conducted by Bryan Balkwill (x), Richard Bonynge (y); Sir Alexander Gibson (z), Christopher Hogwood (A), Philip Ledger (B), Raymond Leppard (C), Henry Lewis (D), Sir Neville Marriner (E), Christophe Rousset (F).
Decca 458 249-2 [77' 16]

A great deal of water has gone under the bridge of Handelian interpretation over the last half-century, and this collection risks shooting itself in the foot by starting with the three most recent items. Here we have original instruments, detached bowing, brilliant rhythms and "authentic" voice production. What "authentic" voice production really is can be anyone's guess but the fact is that a present-day specialist like Emma Kirkby demonstrates a total ease in the florid writing whereas a singer trained in the Mozart-Rossini repertoire such as Teresa Berganza seems to have to work a lot harder. When the first generation of baroque-specialist singers arrived on the scene all these operas took on a new lease of life, but it did seem that a singer would have to choose between a repertoire which stopped with the baroque or one which started after it. A singer of the latest generation, Sara Mingardo, who is heard to good effect in an aria from Riccardo Primo, may yet show is that this need not be so.

Decca, thanks to the L'Oiseau-Lyre label, probably has a more distinguished back-catalogue of Handel opera than any other company, but instead of drawing on those excellent pioneering sets led by Sir Anthony Lewis they have preferred to go for the big names. With a souped-up accompaniment by Douglas Gamley "Care selve" hardly counts as Handel at all and Pavarotti's voice seems to have been caught away from the microphone at the beginning and at several other points (or is he attempting a head-voice, Lauri-Volpi style?). Not one of his more treasurable moments. The Italians have a bad habit of singing the so-called Largo at weddings with religious words and Renata Tebaldi, after a perfunctory recitative (was she sight-singing it?) disregards the operatic context and gives us the full Mascagni treatment (gloriously sung, it has to be said). George Hall's useful introduction rightly points out that Handel's marking is Larghetto; rarely have notes and performance been at such odds.

Alongside these, Sutherland, Berganza and Horne all make valiant efforts in the right direction. Berganza's Piangerò and Horne's Dove sei are finely sung by any standard; Sutherland concludes the disc with a virtuoso display (Da tempesta il legno) though her partner in the Rodelinda duet is not on her level. But today these performances are likely to be appreciated more by fans of the singers than admirers of Handel. It is interesting to note how Bonynge, chameleon-like, can be crisp and "authentic" or slushy, according to whom he is accompanying.

Although Decca chose to ignore the old L'Oiseau-Lyre sets, it is still the British-based performances, of the older recordings, which show more style. It was a pleasure to hear the items by Forbes Robinson, Sir Geraint Evans and, especially Bernadette Greevy, who should have recorded far more. And, as a purely orchestral interlude, Sir Neville Marriner gives an excellent interpretation of the Dream Music from Alcina.

The recordings all come up well, but I found I had to adjust the volume level sometimes between one item and the next. The engineers managed rather better on the companion Rossini disc. I am not quite sure who the collection is aimed at since most people will like parts of it and hardly anyone will enjoy it all. Still, the genius of Handel seems to transcend the various limitations. Texts and translations are provided.

Christopher Howell

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