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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Almira, Königin von Castilien (1705) – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking after Giulio Pancieri
Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra/Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs
rec. 21 January - 1 February 2018, Senesaal, Bremen, Germany
Booklet notes and synopsis in English and German
German and Italian libretto with English translation
CPO 555 205-2 [4 CDs: 241:55]

Despite the exponential rise of interest in Handel’s operas over recent decades, his very first remains something of a rarity – it is infrequently staged and this is only its second complete recording. Almira also happens to be the sole surviving opera of four which he wrote in his native Germany, whilst working at the prestigious theatre at the Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. As the nineteen year old composer had yet to visit Italy when Almira received its premiere in January 1705, it is less influenced by the form of opera seria from that country, than the hotchpotch of styles and sources which composers of opera had come to draw upon regularly in that cosmopolitan and ‘free city’ (i.e. not ruled by an autocrat). Arias tend to be shorter, and comprise strophic songs, or cantilenas and ariosos, rather than always exhibiting a formal, full-length da capo structure; it is the only of one of Handel’s operas without a role written for a castrato; although the libretto is largely in German, it displays another Hamburg peculiarity in that a sizeable minority of arias are in Italian; and some French dances are also interspersed. The result is a stylistically and structurally diverse opera – perhaps more so than any of the other surviving 38 which Handel composed subsequently, even if it is impossible that its multiplicity of movements can be forged into an artistically satisfying unity. Seasoned Handelians will also recognise the source in this opera for several pieces that were adapted subsequently, most notably the Sarabande in Act III as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo.

As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so the course of true love runs far from smoothly in Almira. The eponymous Queen of Castile has come of age, and at her coronation the will of the late king is disclosed by her guardian Consalvo which requires that she marry a son of his. This perturbs her as not only would that leave her with the feckless Osman, she is already in love with her private secretary, Fernando, a man of obscure origins. This being Baroque opera, after a series of misunderstandings and ruses – though no major disguises as such – all turns out well when Fernando’s possession of a jewel reveals that he is in fact the long-lost son of Consalvo, who had been presumed drowned.

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs together all too audibly direct from their theorbos and baroque guitar as their heavy strumming comes to the forefront of the recording more than is necessary, and sometimes sounds more like tapping or banging in time with the music. That may have been desirable and effective in the live performances at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2013 from which this 2018 studio recording ultimately stems, but on disc it is distracting.

After an abrupt, even obnoxious, rendition of the overture, the continuo section of the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra frequently takes a rather proactive part in the recitatives, and vivaciously undergirds the arias, sometimes to the benefit of the latter but not always. The cello continuo also occasionally indulges in an annoying practice whereby the steps between the interval of the final note of one recitative and the first of the following aria are sounded: if attention has to be brought to the change in tonality, it can surely be achieved more subtly. Another example of tampering is in Fernando’s aria ‘Schöne Flammen, fahret wohl’, which is one of a number accompanied by the continuo alone. The lilting line of the latter is rather dissolved between the almost inaudible cello which seems to execute the written notes, and the strumming theorbo and harp which pick out the implied chords over it. Curiously, where one might expect to find some reedy colour on the part of the oboes in the full instrumental ensemble elsewhere, they often sound quiet and wan, which often provides a delicate timbre, but something more vociferous would be welcome in more extrovert music for the sake of contrast.

The courtly French dances which are dispersed amongst the score are elegantly played, with swaying, seamless strings, and stylistically correct dotted rhythms and occasional ornamentation. But the castanets in the general pauses punctuating the yearning half-phrases of Act I’s Sarabande are intrusive, even if there is general historical evidence for the use of such percussive instruments at the opera house in Hamburg. Bells are heard elsewhere – for example in Osman’s ‘Scepter und Kron’ which rightly trivialise his mercenary ambitions to share the throne with Almira – and the accompaniment of the hurdy gurdy for the comic servant Tabarco’s aria ‘Kommt, vermehrt der Thorheit Ruhm’ is apposite.

Recitatives tend to be more leisurely here, and sung as music rather than with the more stuttered parlando effect of genuine Italianate recitative as in Handel’s later operas. This may be excusable on the basis that Almira is a musical drama in German written with the expectations of the particular audiences in Hamburg in mind – indeed it was announced at its premiere as a singspiel, albeit without any spoken dialogue – rather than in accordance with the foreign dictates of opera seria. But it means that this recording comes in at just over four hours in length, as opposed to around three and three quarter hours for the earlier recording from 1994 by Andrew Lawrence-King, also on CPO and recorded in the same location, although it includes all the same music and makes no cuts.

In the title role Emőke Baráth sings with impressive and restrained nobility, to the extent that there could be more fire and passion in ‘Vedrai, s’a tuo dispetto’, as she vents her rage over Fernando’s supposed lack of interest in her, and ‘Kochet, ihr Adern’. But otherwise she assumes the part with exemplary insight and nuance, seeming to incite the orchestra to sigh in sympathy with her expression of desperation in ‘Move i passi alle ruine’ for example.

Zachary Wilder is a generally lyrical Osman, with an attractive timbre in his voice that is reminiscent of John Mark Ainsley, but he is often more tremulous so that he is not completely convincing. Colin Balzer as Almira’s beloved Fernando is more mellifluous, as demonstrated in ‘Liebliche Wälder’, though he becomes a touch shrill in other passages. But he certainly rises in dignity – musically and dramatically – in his prison scene towards the end of Act III, bringing out the full stature of the part.

Amanda Forsythe sings sweetly as Edilia, a princess in love with Osman, though there is a tendency for her tone to be thin and wiry. It is a pity that she is not in full command of her messa di voce which is frequently called for by Handel in the long notes that he wrote in several of her arias – they are sustained somewhat reticently and then break out into a trill rather than issuing forth as a convincing crescendo. But her very steady and still notes in ‘Quillt, ihr überhäuften Zähren’ are touching, rendering this aria as one which could be from a Bach Passion.

Christian Immler’s Consalvo is decent enough, though somewhat lacks colour, such as in ‘Lass ein sanftes Händedrücken’ where there might be more ardour, however hopelessly he yearns for Bellante at that point; and notwithstanding this quibble, his shift into falsetto tone for its final phrase is unnecessary. Teresa Wakim discharges the role of Bellante flirtatiously enough before settling on Osman as her betrothed, whilst it is Jesse Blumberg’s characterful Raymondo, the royal African visitor to Almira’s court, who ends up with Edilia. Jan Kobow conveys the comic servant Tabarco idiomatically and musically, despite arias which are not especially inspired.

This new recording will pique the interest of Handelians as it includes the music for the aria at the end of Act I which was missing until 2004 when a manuscript with some numbers from the opera was discovered in Jever. It only preserves the melody and bass line, and so O’Dette has composed the inner parts, just as Peter Holman has also done for some of the dances where the sources for the whole opera fail to transmit the music for all the instruments. Stubbs has also used fragments from the cantatas Handel wrote in Rome shortly after this opera to complete the handful of bars which alone survive of the quintet ‘Hoffe nur der rechten Zeit’ near the end of Act III. Nevertheless, too many gratuitous interventions in this performance which attempt to enliven the score are rather too artificially imposed on it instead of arising naturally from the music, and so they become irritating. Lawrence-King’s rendition remains preferable, not least for its generally more charismatic cast and a wonderful Edilia in Patricia Rozario, even if Baráth can take the honours in the title role in this new recording.

Curtis Rogers

Almira – Emőke Baráth (soprano)
Edilia – Amanda Forsythe (soprano)
Fernando – Colin Balzer (tenor)
Consalvo – Christian Immler (baritone)
Osman – Zachary Wilder (tenor)
Raymondo – Jesse Blumber (baritone)
Bellante – Teresa Wakim (soprano)
Tabarco – Jan Kobow (tenor)

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