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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Un’Opera Immaginaria
Part I
1. I Overture (Arminio) [3:15]
2. II Arioso: Dolce riposo (Teseo) [3:08]
3-4. III Recitativo e Aria: Della vita mortale [0:29]
Un pensiero nemico di pace (Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno) [3:54]
5-6. IV Recitativo e Aria: A deluder le frodi io mi prepare [0:41]
Sincero affetto (Fernando) [5:18]
7. V Aria: Destero dall’empia dite (Amadigi) [5:27]
Part II
8. VI Sarabande (Alcina) [0:59]
9. VII Aria: Cosi la tortorella (La Risurrezione) [3:42]
10-11. VIII Recitativo e Aria: Bellissimia Romilda [0:29]
Di tacere (Serse) [1:54]
12. IX Aria: Scherza infida (Ariodante) [9:47]
13. X Scena: Ah! Stigie larve! (Orlando) [7:11]
14-15. XI Recitativo & Duetto: Madre! Mia Vita [0:36]
Son nata a lagrimar (Giulio Cesare) [7:51]
Part III
16-17. XII Recitativo e Scena: Ah! Ruggiero crudel [3:00]
Ombre pallide (Alcina) [6:32]
18-19. XIII Recitativo e Duettino: Ti stringo, o illustre acciaro [0:41]
Quando più minaccia il cielo (Arminio) [1:46]
20-21. XIV Recitativo e Aria: Verso il gran fine [0:30]
Come all’urto aggressor (Deidamia) [4:29]
22. XV Aria: Venti, turbine (Rinaldo) [3:35]
23. XVI Tamburino e coro: Doppo tante amare pene (Alcina) [1:46]
see end of review for performance details
VIRGIN CLASSICS 2672802 [77:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This generous compilation is the product of a novel and amusing idea to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death. Excerpts from 11 operas and two oratorios recorded and released between 1986 and 2008 and spanning thirty-five years of Handel’s prodigious output, have been assembled to recreate a kind of facsimile opera typical of the 38 he wrote during his long and (mostly) successful career. It is an idea by no means entirely foreign or indeed to inimical to the composer himself; Handel frequently stitched together “pasticcios” from his works and some of his most celebrated creations are as much as 75% re-cycled musical material. Likewise, his star singers were used to producing an “aria di baule” (“trunk-aria”) as and when required, to be inserted willy-nilly into the opera being performed simply because it was a current favourite with the public.

So we shouldn’t get too snooty or purist about this witty confection. French musicologist Ivan Alexandre, whose brainchild this was, has been careful to respect the conventions of “opera seria” and used sound judgment in juxtaposing these disparate elements in authentic manner. His introduction to the disc sums up neatly the spirit of the enterprise:- 

“ It seems that, in the years around 1720, when people went to the opera to hear a castrato idol or an adored soprano, they would play cards, pay court to their neighbours and savour sorbets during the recitatives - even during the so-called arias of action, which they enjoyed less than the ornamented reprises of the showpiece arias. With this intractable and hedonistic audience in mind (so different from people like us, of course), thirteen star singers came together to concoct this festive piece, constructed and presented in three acts like a true dramma per musica, but with no explicit story and no concrete characters: in other words, an imaginary opera formed of passion and music. It is also a salute to the composer, who died on 14th April 1759, a quarter of a millennium ago - and to the opera-loving public, deprived of sorbet, but not of pleasure.” 

I would hope that the decision to provide no libretto was made not on grounds of cost but in order to preserve the illusion of a continuous drama. However, if you are already familiar with all or some of the highlights used, you will inevitably bring your own knowledge and associations to this music, so it is perhaps a little stingy and precious to deny us the words. Similarly, the conceit is a little dented by the fact that we hear so many different voices, recorded in a variety of acoustics and venues (at least one live) with different conductors and orchestras - but this is still a mighty entertaining disc, featuring some of the best Handelians of our time. Almost every singer is an established star and has something special to offer, and while the scope of my personal taste in voices does not encompass that of Ian Bostridge, it would be churlish to begrudge him his three minutes and forty-two seconds, so I’ll pass over that. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to so many accomplished voices. Rising star Joyce Di Donato despatches fiery accounts of her showpiece arias and it is good to hear the silver tones of the late Arleen Augér, but the absolute highlight of this disc for me is the superb duet from “Giulio Cesare” with Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels; two beautifully matched and tuned voices entwining most movingly. Of the three counter-tenors featured, I certainly prefer Daniel’s rich timbre to the more piping tones of Philippe Jaroussky and could wish that Daniel’s version of that prince among Handel arias Scherza infida had been the one selected, but Jaroussky sings with great skill, control and pathos. The third counter-tenor, Max Emanuel Cencic - a singer whom I have not previously heard - is equally delightful in the sensuous aria Sincero affetto. 

The whole gamut of emotional registers and conventions generally encountered in Baroque opera is artfully covered in this disc, from the obligatory “mad scene”, to the “sleep scene”, to martial bravura, to the “shades” aria, to duels between the voice and instruments. Virgin have also brought out a Handel anniversary edition double CD of arias and duets, but this single offering would make an equally ideal introduction to Handel for the novice, presenting the da capo form at its most beguiling. As it is, I can envisage playing this lovely disc often, as I confess that the longueurs in some Handel operas sometimes incline me towards judiciously selected highlights.

Ralph Moore 

Performance details
Joyce DiDonato (soprano) (2, 7)
Natalie Dessay (soprano) (3,4)
Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor) (5,6)
Ian Bostridge (tenor) (9)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo) (10,11)
Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor) (12)
Vivica Genaux (mezzo) (13)
Stephanie Blythe (contralto) (14,15)
David Daniels (counter-tenor) (14,15,22)
Arleen Augér (soprano) (16,17)
Geraldine McGreevy (soprano) (18,19)
Manuela Custer (mezzo) (18,19)
Anna Bonitatibus (mezzo) (20,21)
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis (1,5,6,18,19,20,21)
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset (2,7)
Le Concert d'Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm (3,4,12)
City of London Baroque Sinfonia/Richard Hickox (8,16,17,23)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (9,22)/Harry Bicket (9)
Sir Roger Norrington (22)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie (10,11,12)
Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labadie (13)
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/John Nelson 14,15)

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