Recorded in February 1984 this reissue of Handel’s Alessandro is testament that there is nothing ‘new’ anymore about performances on original instruments. In the early 1980s this recording would have had the thrill of being original and authentic in every sense of the word. And Kuijken and Le Petite Bande were one of the earliest exponents of ‘authentic’ performance.
Indeed, looking at the cast list, it is interesting to see that René Jacobs began his career on the other side of the continuo section – on the stage.
Alessandro was first performed in 1726 and follows such stalwarts as Rinaldo, Tamerlano and Giulio Cesare, and precedes Alcina by a whole decade. It also has the historical envy of being the first opera that Handel wrote for Faustina Bordoni, later the wife of Johann Adolf Hasse. The other soprano soloist in the first performance was Francesca Cuzzoni, but alas it was not during Alessandro that they came to blows on the stage. If memory serves me correctly, an opera by Bononcini was accorded that honour.
So almost twenty years after it was recorded, how does Kuijken’s recording fare against more recent Baroque bands? Personally it could have been recorded yesterday so fresh, articulate and enjoyable is the performance, with not one weak element in the ensemble.
Vocally the soloists are incredibly strong. Jacobs sings the title role originally written for Senesino, with Sophie Boulin and Isabelle Poulenard singing the roles of Rossane/Bordoni and Lisaura/Cuzzoni respectively. From the beginning they deliver amazingly strong performances – vocally secure, beautifully sung and with a real sense of intelligence and understanding. René Jacobs countertenor has a beautifully rounded, bell-like tone across his range, coupled with strong technique. Boulin and Poulenard have distinct voices – clearly one of the reasons why they were originally cast – so that a listener interested in spotting which arias Handel specifically write for these two sparring sopranos can do so quite easily. Even the two other countertenors – Jean Nirouët and the delightful Guy de Mey – are easily distinguishable from one another.
The arias throughout are mainly da capo as expected, but it is interesting how far we have departed in terms of ornamentation in the returning da capo sections. There is virtually little ornamentation or embellishment on the return of the first section as opposed to some of the flights of fancy we hear these days in newer recordings and on stage. However if reports of the day are to be believed, neither interpretation is right nor wrong. Although I personally have to admit to a sense of relief when singers err on the side of intelligence.
Sigiswald Kuijken and Le Petite Bande – first formed in 1972 – play with great distinction and I quickly remembered that on the performance strengths of these early enthusiasts a whole dynasty of authentic orchestras has been built. The players play with great bite and spirit not only in the opening overture and the onstage sinfonia that follows immediately, but in all the arias.
And of the music itself? While Alessandro is no Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo or Alcina, it is a beautifully crafted opera, with almost all the arias – and not only those that have made it to recital discs – worthy of being heard more than once. Indeed the opera in its entirety bears repeated listening. Even the recitatives. It’s good to hear recitatives delivered with the clarity of diction and sense of momentum as they are here.
From the opening bars of the overture, Alessandro sets out to capture the attention of the listener. Not only are the arias delightful but there is also an attention to detail that encourages careful listening. For example the fast section of the overture with it’s delicate rhythmic bounce and then – most unexpectedly and already mentioned – a sinfonia complete with trumpets as the curtain rises onto Alessandro’s opening accompanied recitative.
In the arias for Alessandro – a role written for Senesino – we are not confronted by a leader in the same mould as Giulio Cesare, a role also created for this famous castrati. Instead for the most part the arias have an almost galant lilt to them. The first aria, Fra le stragi e fra le morti for example, with its delicate vocal divisions and trills, was clearly written to land the range of skills of Senesino immediately – a beauty of tone, agile runs and faultless trilling. His second of three arias in the First Act, Men fedele, e men costante, continues in the same vein, although the angular nature of the accompaniment leaves the listener in no doubt that this is ‘the King’ singing. The closing aria of the act is not the crowd raiser that is often expected at the end of acts in Baroque opera. The gentle strumming of the opening bars gives way once again to a feeling of galanterie. The sustained opening vocal line reinforces a sense of Alessandro as a benign (or Enlightened?) monarch. Indeed only in his final aria, Prove sono di grandezza perdonar l’alme soggette does Alessandro finally get the vocal fireworks more often associated with the leading man. However even here, there is no sense of grandeur – no trumpets, no timpani, simply a beautifully crafted aria left to stamp it’s own mark and underline Alessandro’s magnanimity once again before the closing duet.
The music that Handel wrote for Bordoni as Rossane made sure that she was given ample opportunity to display her vocal talents. Quantz via Charles Burney commented that she was an accomplished performer with a “flexible throat for divisions … so beautiful a shake … She sang adagios with great passion and expression … In short, she was born for singing and acting”. And within the short space of her two arias in the opening act this is quickly established and conveyed by Sophie Boulin. A clear, well articulated singer, Boulin clearly enjoys the role. Interestingly Un lusinghiero dolce pensiero bears a passing resemblance to Tornami a vagheggiar from Alcina, performed in 1735. Rossane’s beautiful arioso at the beginning of Act Two, with it’s plangent recorders, is in marked contrast to her preceding arias and is the first of three occasions where Handel introduces recorders in the entire opera. Tassile’s Sempre fido e disprezzato, beautifully sung by Jean Nirouët, sees their return and provides a gentle respite in the opera as a whole. Rossane’s only other aria in the middle act – Alla sua gabbia d’oro soul ritorna talor, was again clearly written to specification for Signora Bordoni’s vocal prowess, and particular for her vocal trademark – the repetition of a single note rapidly. Yet it is Brilla nell’alma un non inteso ancor dolce contento which is one of the highlights of the opera and most often heard on recital discs. Again this aria has been cut to fit Bordoni’s cloth and performed immaculately by Boulin, it is nothing short of a show-stopper.
Lisaura, ably sung by Isabelle Poulenard, has one less aria than her protagonist but the music that Handel wrote for Cuzzoni is as beautiful. Cuzzoni’s abilities were already well-known to the composer, for he had created the roles of Cleopatra and Rodelinda for her, and it was during Ottone that he threatened to throw her out of a window. To this extent, her arias feel more rounded than those for Bordoni as, in a sense, Handel was only just getting acquainted with the latter’s voice. No, più soffrir non voglio in the First Act clearly demonstrates this fact, and Poulenard sings out off the rapid divisions and leaps with clear relish. In a more pathetic vein is Che tirannia d’Amor, with its delicate suspensions and nicely balanced by her final aria in the second act, La cervetta nei lacci avvolta.
Unusually the duet towards the close of the first act – Placa l’alma, quieta il petto – is between Rossane and Lisaura, and is clearly inspired by the sixth Concerto Grosso from his Opus 3.
Yet it is in the closing duet, In generoso onor, that Handel provides the audience with a final surprise. After an as-expected opening, with the castrato and soprano entwined in thirds, sixths and suspensions, Handel veers into new territory marked with a languishing melisma for Alessandro and the arrival of recorders one final time. At this point Rossane joins the King and Lisaura for a trio before they are ultimately joined by choir and trumpets to supply a martial ending to the whole opera.
So while Alessandro is not on a par with perhaps Giulio Cesare or Alcina it is a beautifully crafted opera. More importantly it is, overall, a memorable reissue. My only gripe? No libretto enclosed.