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George Frederick HANDEL (1689-1759)
Deidamia, HWV 41 (1741) [184.00]
Sally Matthews (soprano) - Deidamia; Olga Pasichnyk (soprano) - Achilles; Veronica Cangemi (soprano) - Nerea; Silvia Tro Santafé (mezzo) - Ulysses; Andrew Foster-Williams (bass) - Phoenix; Umberto Chiummo (bass) - Lycomedes
Concerto Köln/Ivor Bolton
ec. Amsterdam Music Theatre, March 2012
bonus: documentary [24.00]
Sound format: 2.0 LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS
Subtitles: English, French, German
OPUS ARTE OA1088D [208.00]

Handel’s final Italian opera has never achieved much of a profile. It was only ever performed three times at its initial presentation in London, and there are only two recordings of it in the current catalogue - one each from Rudolph Palmer in 2001 and Alan Curtis in 2004. This appears to be its only presentation in video format.
 
Such neglect is really unfair. Although the plot of Deidamia appears on the surface to consist of yet more Handelian tangles of disguises, cross-dressing and misidentification, the idea of disguise is not - as usually with Handel - an ornamentation to the plot, but lies at the very centre of it. Achilles has been sent to an island disguised as a woman to prevent him taking part in the Trojan War, which it is correctly prophesied will lead to his death. The heroine of the opera, who is already aware of the subterfuge of the disguise, falls in love with him but in the end has to yield not only to the demands of the Greek generals who come in pursuit of the hero, but also to Achilles’s own lust for heroic glory even if this will prove fatal to him. Deidamia herself is given a series of arias which display all Handel’s responsiveness to changes of mood and situation; but there are also magnificent pieces for Achilles and the cunning Ulysses who is seeking to unmask him.
 
The opera also show Handel’s style continuing to develop with the passing years. Particularly interesting is the hunting scene in which the Greeks seek to discover the true identity of Achilles, which opens with an ensemble and chorus - unprecedented in Handel’s earlier Italian operas - which betray Handel’s increasing interest in the field of dramatic oratorio. So indeed does the aria Va, perfido during that scene, which pre-echoes O thou that tallest good tidings to Zion. We are reminded that Messiah was just around the corner. There are a few dramatic longueurs - it was a mistake to follow Deidamia’s beautiful lament in the Second Act with another slow aria for the somnolent Lycomedes - but by and large the occasionally rather insubstantial plot keeps bubbling along with plenty of incident.
 
The first thing to be said about this recording is that the performance is magnificent. Sally Bradshaw encompasses all the aspects of Deidamia with ease and confidence, and produces some superbly poised coloratura in her ornamentation of the da capo arias. Olga Pasichnyk is a delightfully tomboyish Achilles, whose female disguise should never have fooled anyone for a moment. Ulysses, originally a castrato role, is here taken - in accordance with Handel’s usual practice when a castrato was not available - by the very feminine Silvia Tro Santafé who produces some gloriously smooth sounds. As the secondary pair of lovers, Veronica Cangemi and the personable Andrew Foster-Williams both produce performances to die for; and even the elderly Lycomedes is given full measure by Umberto Chiummo. In the pit the energetic Ivor Bolton keeps everything moving along nicely, but is able to conjure expressive sounds from the expanded period band when needed. Indeed from the musical point of view this is quite simply faultless, once we have got past the business of Ulysses’ opening lines being delivered over a submarine tannoy. As a musical performance it is streets ahead of Rudolph Palmer’s pioneering recording - I have only heard extracts from that by Alan Curtis, but those reveal a performance that is certainly no better than the one we have here and rather smaller voices with less dramatic involvement.
 
One usually has reason to be even more suspicious of stage productions of Handel than one does of those of Wagner. ‘Concept producers’ seem to regard Handel as completely open season for any directorial gloss they may wish to impose. It must be confessed that Handel’s operas often admit of such interpretations; but the results can often be not only laughable but positively ugly, and only rarely illuminating. Here the scenery, by Paul Steinberg, is superb. The panoramic skyscapes which dominate the scene are beautifully designed, and the sets although basic have an attractiveness which enhances the stage picture. The costumes by Constance Hoffman, the usual modern mix of styles from classical Greek to brutal twentieth century, are not in themselves unpleasant to look at; and we are spared the excesses of garish makeup which we often encounter in this repertory.
 
The only real problem with this set comes with the stage direction itself, the work of David Alden. It should be clear from what I have said above that Deidamia is essentially a very serious opera addressing very real issues, and Handel’s music reflects this. Often Alden will allow his singers a straightforward rendition of the opening of a da capo aria, only to spoil the effect with irrelevant and downright distracting stage business during the middle section and reprise - as if he does not trust the music sufficiently to hold the viewer’s attention. Some of the stage business works, but most of it does not; sometimes it draws the focus away from the singers themselves, and at other times - like the Greek soldiers ogling Deidamia while she undertakes callisthenetic exercises on the beach during Nasconda l’usignol (don’t ask why) - it focuses the attention in the wrong sort of way. Fortunately he keeps this tendency at bay during Deidamia’s beautiful lament Se il timore, and after that, as the plot thickens, the treatment of the dramatic situation becomes more serious.
 
This is a relatively minor distraction in the context of a performance which is musically so superb and where the stage pictures are often so beautiful to look at. In fact this is a production that will gladden the heart of any Handelian, who may well be unfamiliar with a score that deserves far more attention than it has hitherto received. The final duet for Deidamia and Ulysses, with its long-breathed sighs of “Amor!”, and the curiously downbeat final chorus - emphasising the fact that this is not an opera with a conventionally happy ending - set the seal on a very enjoyable experience.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey 




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