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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Curtis’

Aria For … Wednesday – Se il mar promette calma (Lotario)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Handel, Opera on April 3, 2013 at 9:54 am

What I love about hitting shuffle on the iPod is that way it can throw out not only something that I haven’t heard in a long time but something that I don’t know that well.

Se il mar promette calma from Handel’s Lotario is an example. It’s not an opera I know at all well and this aria – for bass – doesn’t even ring the most distant memory.

A shame as it’s a jaunty number for the remarkably named character Clodomiro and here sung by Vito Priante accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis.

From what I can understand it’s one of those typical simile arias about crossing a stormy sea, which in baroque terms is all about overcoming adversity. You can’t beat a good simile aria and I love Metastasio’s perfect model.

The aria itself is incredibly simple yet both elegant and effective. The string accompaniment and running bass in the continuo are clearly meant to refer to the sea and wind and the playing of Il Complesso is both exemplary and exhilarating.

The vocal line itself is surprisingly florid for a bass aria and from what I can gather for a secondary character but Priante delivers the aria with both gusto and incredible musicianship. Not only are the more florid passages managed with great skill and a beautiful legato line but also his voice is both mellifluous and resonant through his entire range. And the returning da capo is tastefully decorated.

This is an aria that shouldn’t be anything less than a recital item for bass singers.

As I said, I love it when something like this happens and now I am off to listen to the entire opera.

Marvellous.

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Viva La Regina DiDonato

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 9, 2012 at 9:20 am

Drama Queens – Joyce DiDonato (Il Complesso Barocco & Alan Curtis)

Album of the year.

There I said it.

Joyce DiDonato’s new album, Drama Queens is – in terms of its high standards of musicianship, exuberant performance and clear passion to perform previously unperformed and undiscovered arias – quite simply the most enjoyable and extraordinary album released this year.

Superlatives over. For now.

It must be a remarkable feeling not only to find – in my romantic mind’s eye – among stacks of dusty manuscripts in the corners of remote libraries arias by unknown composers but then also to perform them.

It’s clearly a trend. Recently Ms Kermes performed arias by composers such as de Mayo and Porpora who are – to a greater extent than before – known to the audience. But on her new recital disc Ms DiDonato delves deeper to bring to life the music of composers who have effectively been forgotten for centuries.

Giuseppe Maria Orlandini. Giovanni Porta. Geminiano Giacomelli. And to a lesser extent Reinhard Keiser. Names much forgotten until now.

And their juxtaposition with the likes of Handel, Hasse, Gluck and Haydn reveals something more startling – that the common perception that they simply ‘weren’t very good’ is not necessarily true. I am not saying that the quality of their music consistently reached the standard of the aforementioned but neither can I believe that these individual arias are simply creative flukes.

And granted it takes a singer of the calibre of Ms DiDonato supported by the excellent Il Complesso Barocco under Alan Curtis to make this music, quite literally, sing.

There is not a weak link in the recital either in terms of the arias chosen or the performances. Yet personally some of the arias stand out more than others.

The opening aria, Da torbida procella from Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s Berenice, with its overtones of Vivaldi and balance of declamatory phrases and florid passages is a fitting opening track to the recital and Ms DiDonato sets a standard that keeps on rising. The second aria taken from Berenice is another vocal tour de force, the incredibly florid vocal writing holding absolutely no terrors for the singer.

Keiser is possibly the most exciting composer on the disc. Fredegunda’s Lasciami piangere is simply haunting and it is the sonority of the orchestral writing as well as the poignancy of the in-built pauses which are, in some ways, as surprising as Ms DiDonato’s heartfelt delivering of the lilting vocal line. Similarly, the deceptively simple Geloso, sospetto from his opera Octavia with its multiple bassoon obbligato is a real gem.

More Keiser please.

Geminiano Giacomelli’s Merope reveals Sposa, son disprezzata. Again its almost Vivaldian shading and orchestral writing support a vocal line spun out above, and in the da capo Ms Donato finds just the right balance of ornamentation to create an greater emotional impact.

Ms Donato also delves right back to Monteverdi and Cesti with style and expertise, modulating the richness of her voice to this earlier music and finding the right colours to bring this music to life. And all with perfect clarity of diction, a trademark of the entire disc in fact.

Ms Donato also includes selections from Handel Hasse. They are beautiful sung with panache but – and perhaps – because they are better known, they do not grab me in the same way as the other arias. But they do serve a purpose, as I have already said, to demonstrate that the other composers on this disc deserve a better place.

The last two selections on the disc are by Haydn and Gluck respectively but drawn from their operas based on the story of Armida. I remember first hearing Vedi, se t’amo … Odio, furor, dispetto on the Dorati set with Jessye Norman and beginning a life-long love of Haydn’s operas. Here Ms Donato delivers an impassioned performance, breathless and fiery in equal measure. The flip side of the emotional coin is Gluck’s Ah! Si la liberte me doit etre ravie sung with a simplicity that packs quite a punch.

However, it is the Giovanni Porta’s haunting preghiera Madre diletta from Iphigenia in Aulide, the second track on the disc, which steals the show in the entire recital. Ms Donato and the players relentlessly drive this siciliana forward. Again the singer and players finds the perfect balance in the returning da capo in terms of ornamentation – the return of Madre, spun out is breathtaking. I cannot believe there was a dry eye in the house when this aria was first performed. It has become a favourite.

Ms Donato is in London in the New Year as part of her tour to promote this album. In reality while I may wax lyrical about the brilliance of this album, don’t take it from me, listen to Joyce DiDonato herself.

Listen. You won’t be disappointed. At all.

This is musical greatness.

2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

In Baroque, Beethoven, Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

2011. The year that I started this blog to recount my own opinions about performances that I attended and CDs that I listened to.

No one’s opinion – particularly mine – is either right not perfect. Listening to music is an intensely, intensely personal experience. I can sit next to a friend and at the end of performance walk away with a completely reaction and different point of view. And on some occasions following what can be heated discussion my opinion has changed. And I can leave performances I attend alone with one perception and after some thought, or a flash of ‘something’, I have changed my mind. Sometimes completely.

So what I have selected below are the ten events or recordings that have struck me as the most significant performances I have heard in 2011. And five that were disappointing against the original expectation.

Top of a list of ten is a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. At tempi faster than usually expected, these are lithe, muscular renditions of these great works. But at no point do either Chailly or the GewandhausOrchester sacrifice speed for precision and an acute attention to detail. And as I have said before, the timpanist is a revelation. And of all the symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is my personal favourite and I was fortunate enough to see them perform this symphony during their visit to London. And in 2012 I plan to visit Leipzig and see them on their home turf.

Needless to say, you haven’t purchased this set already then I can’t recommend it enough.

Next to Munich for Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin in July. I had originally hoped to see both Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier in the two female roles, and while Emily Magee more than respectably replaced Ms Pieczonka as Elsa, it was very much Meier’s evening. Her Ortrud was a masterful character study of pure malevolence. As I remarked at the time, there was something almost Shakespearean in the way that Jones revealed the character not only of Ortrud but of her husband, Telramund played magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin. Indeed even when she was not singing, Ms Meier held the complete attention of the audience. Jones direction was masterful not only in its attention to detail – there were some incredibly thought-provoking moments – but also in the way he also captured the grand sweep of emotion as well. The ending – not the traditional one of redemption – is not one I will forget in a hurry.

Another unforgettable evening of Wagner – at the other end of the spectrum – was Opera North’s semi-staged production of Das Rheingold at the Lowry Theatre on Salford Quays. From the moment Richard Farnes – in a moment of simple yet effective theatrical magic – lifted his baton and raised the waves of the Rhine itself, it was a near perfect performance. The singers were without a single weakness and if I am to salute just a few then without doubt they are the Fricka of Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset’s Freia, the Rhinemaidens one and all – Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston and Sarah Castle – and the brilliant Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. And special mention of Peter Mumford and his exceptionally elegant and effective lighting. This was a performance of Das Rheingold that outshone many I have seen by some of the so-called ‘major’ opera companies and some of that credit is due to the artistic consultancy of Dame Anne Evans. I have a ticket to their production of Die Walküre next year and do not doubt that it will be of the same incredible high standard.

Staying with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making from both the orchestra and the singers. Without a doubt this was music that Young both loved deeply and knew inside out. It reminded me in so many ways of Reginald Goodall’s approach to Wagner – majestic, informed and intuitive and with a real attention to the orchestral detail and sensitive to the singers. And the case was incredibly strong. Angela Denoke and Katarina Dalayman were Sieglinde and Brunnhilde respectively but the real revelation for me that evening was Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka. For the first time her confrontation with Wotan in the Second Act became a central focus of the unfolding drama as never before in productions I had seen. Even the production and direction – having seen Gotterdammerung the previous year – was strong. As I said at the time, each action was investing in meaning and the set – while incredibly simply – was completely integrated in the narrative. The Hamburg Opera will perform their complete Ring Cycle in 2012 and I am hoping that I can get the time to see it.

Unexpectedly, Mahler appears twice in my lists of performances. The first is a memorable performance of his Resurrection Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena. The BBC Philharmonic sounds exceptional – European – at the moment, which is due to their stewardship under Noseda and this is set to continue under Mena. His approach to Mahler’s Second Symphony was one of architectural clarity with an almost Latin-lilt. It’s a shame that it hasn’t be caught for future listening on a CD.

Renée Fleming’s recent performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach crowned a great year of performances for me. As with their 1999 recording, the pair took a valedictory approach with tempi that revelled in the lush sound world created by Strauss. Eschenbach – bar a few small glitches – drew some glorious playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra but Fleming dominated with an intensely personal and intelligent performance, her warm burnished tone, with a new resonance to her bottom notes, making for a memorable evening.

Kasper Holten soon arrives at Covent Garden and I was fortunate to catch his final production at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an incredibly difficult listen and – with its dense storyline – complicated to direct effectively. However Holten, with his manga-noir set managed to negotiate the audience clearly through the story as well as effectively highlight the underlying psychology woven in. On the whole the singers were incredibly strong and Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra were marvellous in the pit. I think that Holten will be a refreshing and inspiring creative change for Covent Garden.

Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis and a cast including the incredible Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux brought a musically stunning concert performance of Ariodante to London in May. Curtis’ troupe recording all of Handel’s opera – Giulio Cesare is next in 2012 – and this performance marked the release of Ariodante on CD. Needless to say while the charismatic and accomplished Ms DiDonato stole the show it was an incredible night. Each and every soloist sparked off each other to create some brilliant music making and the discovery – for me – of Sabina Puértolas. Definitely someone to watch.

Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder are placed twice in my top ten of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly rich voice was well suited to Strauss and she more than managed the soaring vocal line and was sensitively supported by Wand.

And finally this year wouldn’t have been complete without regular delving into the cantatas of JS Bach. While it is better to listen to them in their entirety, the beauty of Gardiner’s exemplary and recordings with the Monteverdi players and singers and the wonder of shuffle means that many a happy hour has been spent waiting to see what random and revelatory track my iPod will play next. Wonderful.

But of course not all performances and recordings were as memorable. Or were memorable for the wrong reasons.

So here are my top five ‘turkeys’ of 2011. In brief.

Top of the list is the Marrinsky Opera production of Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Kent’s production had some moments of intelligence but the whole thing was completely destroyed by what can only be described – bar Nikolai Putilin’s Barak – as very poor singing indeed. And Valery Gergiev’s conducting was nothing short of disappointing. I am still waiting for Mr Gergiev to send me a refund.

Next Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony, which drew his cycle of the symphonies to an end. His meandering approach made for a lacklustre evening that couldn’t even be salvaged by a strong line up of singers. Indeed, with Maazel intent it seemed on working again the soloists, only Sarah Connolly acquitted herself with any success.

My final three choices all hail from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with casting that couldn’t deliver for box office receipts. I don’t think I will ever want to risk seeing or hearing Dolora Zajick on stage again.

Next – and perhaps surprisingly – I have selected the San Francisco Ring cycle. It goes without saying that Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde was absolutely magnificent and for her alone it was worth the journey. In the singing stakes she was joined by Ronnita Miller as both Erda and Norn and a promising Siegmund by Brandon Jovanovich. However the remaining singers were generally not up to it and Donald Runnicles was completely uninspiring in the pit, generating mediocre and bland playing from the orchestra. And yet the most frustrating element was Francesca Zambello’s often lazy, ill-thought through direction. Promising to deal with the ‘real issues’ facing the US, instead she produced a sugar-coated production clearly more suited to placating San Francisco’s rich donors than forcing them to confront reality.

And finally, Robert LePage’s Die Walküre. Again this was not about the singing which was on the whole, superlative. While Deborah Voigt might not be the best Brunnhilde, she delivered a great performance as did Terfel, Westbroek and – on the whole – Kaufmann. And special mention to the incredibly human portrayal of Fricka by Stephanie Blythe. Less a goddess bent on revenge than a wife trying to save a marriage. But the staging, I felt, hindered the singers and became the main attraction, adding nothing to the narrative or underlying messages of Wagner’s opus, but rather merely a backdrop for some rather ineffective and distracting special effects.

So what of 2012? Well looking at my bookings so far, or which I have few, it seems to be a year of Tristan und Isolde. I am seeing it twice in Berlin, including a concert performance with Nina Stemme under Janowski as part of his plans to record all of Wagner’s operas. I am also off to the Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production as well. Later in the year I have Opera North’s production of Die Walküre to look forward to as well as their new production of Giulio Cesare.

Other plans include hopefully Hamburg Opera’s Ring Cycle, Renée Fleming in Arabella in Paris and a trip to Leipzig for the GewandhausOrchester.

No plans for anything at English National Opera just yet. I was tempted by Der Rosenkavalier but I have seen the production and while I love the opera I don’t think it warrants a return.

And Covent Garden? Not their Ring Cycle. Once was enough. Perhaps Don Giovanni as I haven’t seen a production of it in a while.

And next year I intend to listen to one completely new piece of music at least every fortnight. So suggestions are most welcome.

So a merry Christmas to one and all and here is to an exciting, enjoyable and thought provoking 2012.

When Less Can Be More.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Gauvin, Handel, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Review on December 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

Review – Streams of Pleasure.
Karina Gauvin/Marie Nicole Lemieux/Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis.

Here’s a conundrum. When can an exceptional recital disc be marred by trying to cram too much into it?

For me this seems the case with this recital of arias and duets from Handel’s oratorios performed by Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux.

Having seen both of them in an outstanding concert performance of Alcina (alongside an incredibly heroic Joyce DiDonato) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis, it seemed only a matter of time before the two joined forces for a recital disc under Curtis’ direction.

While their decision to focus on Handel’s magnificent oratorios initially struck me as slightly unusual– and understandably they avoid any inclusions from The Messiah – this is in fact a superlative disc. Let’s be clear, they face inevitable comparison from Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Robin Blaze and their own oratorio disc released some years ago. Truth be told that remains a favourite recital disc of mine – Sampson’s wonderfully bright soprano coupled with Blaze’s clarion-like countertenor produces wonderfully intuitive music making. Whether by deliberate intention or accidental choice of repertoire, the Gauvin/Lemieux recital includes both duets and solo arias with few duplicate selections.

However what defines this new disc is a real sensuality in the performances as opposed to the almost chaste performances of the Sampson/Blaze recital disc. Don’t get me wrong, theirs are beautiful and often breathtaking performances, but the emotional reaction for me comes from the purity of their voices rather than any sense of emotion.

At fifteen tracks this new disc seems incredibly generous, so I was a little surprised to be left with a sense that a shorter selection would have made for a more enjoyable experience.

Without a doubt it is the duets that stand out appropriately so as it is the contrast of the vocal light and shade of Gauvin and Lemieux that lends this recital disc that aura of sensuality. The arias – with a few exceptions – do not match the emotional intensity of the duets and personally, ultimately seem to detract from the overall experience.

The disc opens with Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar and Lemieux is in fine fettle, throwing out the coloratura with ease and supported by jaunty playing from the ensemble. However, it’s not the strongest opening argument for the disc which is why it seems a daring choice for the second track to be what must count as one of the finest duets, from either oratorio or opera, that Handel ever wrote – the heart-wrenching To Thee, Thou Glorious Son of Worth, from the second act of Theodora. Again a comparison unconsciously comes to kind – that of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and David Daniels in Peter Sellar’s unforgettable staging of the oratorio at Glyndebourne. Perhaps one of the most original stagings of Handel and fortunately – not only for Hunt-Lieberson’s unforgettable performance but also Sellars’ intelligent production and direction – caught for posterity on DVD. In comparison to the Sampson/ Blaze performance, Curtis chooses a slightly faster tempo but none of the beauty of the vocal writing or the tragedy of the duet is lost. And it is here that that feeling of sensuality comes to the fore, perhaps its the plangent bassoon, so clearly heard in the opening ritornello, that sets the mood which is underlined by how beautifully the voices of Gauvin and Lemieux intertwine and weave against each other. However Curtis does not allow the singers too much indulgence, maintaining a rhythmic alertness throughout – just listen to the precise delivery of the rhythmic line in the second section. Another wonderful touch happens with the return to the first section. As I’ve mentioned previously – and Curtis is somewhat guilty of this in the recording of Alcina – there can be a tendency to over-ornament da capo sections. Fortunately this is not the case here. Another nice touch is how in the da capo of this particular duet it is Lemieux who leads, ornamenting her vocal line that is then mimicked by Gauvin. A beautiful touch – and psychological insight of the two characters perhaps? – which helps to make this one of the highlights of the entire disc and therefore surprising to hear it so early in to the recital.

The remaining duets are all as impeccably performed with a real sense of drama. For example even the short duet From This Dread Scene from Judas Maccabeus, with its crisp martial accompaniment, is memorable. Both soloists capture and clearly enjoy the inherent drama in this short yet incentive duet.

Theodora’s Streams of Pleasure Everflowing, from which the CD takes its title, reminded me how this oratorio contains some of Handel’s most inspired music in English. Lemieux opens in suitably reverent tone, her creamy contralto wrapping itself wonderfully around the words. When Gauvin joins her, the effect as their vocal lines entwine is magical. Just listen to the wonderful pointed phrasing at ‘All the blissful holy choir’, especially in their mini-cadenza, to feel how in tune these two performers really are.

Our Limpid Streams With Freedom Flow from Joshua is the least effective duet on the disc. While this is a clean cut performance, wonderfully sung, it strikes more as a track filler for what follows – a remarkable performance of Can I See My Infant Gor’d from Solomon. Without a doubt the bass line and hesitant strings above are meant to represent the anguished thoughts of the mother, and Gauvin’s performance captures the mood perfectly, particularly as her diction is absolutely clear. The closing bars from ‘Spare my child, take him all’ is incredibly poignant.

The final track on the disc, and a worthy counterpoint to the first duet is the magnificent duet Great Victor, At Your Feet I Bow from Belshazzar. This is a beautifully crafted piece with Handel so brilliantly capturing the opposing emotions of the two protagonists. Gauvin and Lemieux fit the roles perfectly, the chaste and mournful queen and the young, impetuous yet magnanimous Persian king, investing their words with a real sense of meaning and passion.

Of the remaining arias, Lemieux provides a heart-stopping performance of As With Rosy Steps The Morn. The hushed orchestral opening is matched by the contralto’s own entry. I was once again reminded of Hunt-Lieberson’s haunting performance of this aria. Lemieux’s interpretation, balancing the restraint of the opening section with the increased emotional temperature of the middle section, makes this performance more than a worthy successor.

Joseph And His Brethren is rarely performed which is a shame based on Gauvin’s performance of Prophetic Raptures Swell My Breast. Clearly this aria was written for a soloist with an incredibly technique – not less evidenced by the opportunity for a cadenza at the soprano’s first entry. Research informs me it was written for Elisabeth Duparc, also known as La Francesina and for whom Handel also wrote the title role in Semele.

At almost nine minutes, this is a substantial aria and Gauvin delivers an impeccable and cheerful performance, throwing off the countless runs effortlessly. The minor mode middle section is memorable for the sudden shift in mood, and at the da capo Ms Gauvin’s ornamentation stays clearly on the side of intelligent – and perfectly delivered – addition rather than being over-florid and undermining the music.

Gauvin’s performance of My Father! Ah! Methinks I See The Sword from Hercules is suitably grief-laden. Written for the character Iole, it is one of Handel’s finest arioso-cum-arias. Despite the less melancholy second section, Peaceful Rest With Verdant Shade, Handel maintains an overall air of tragedy til the end.

Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – as ever – provide keen and alert accompaniment throughout and as I have mentioned above, show incredible restraint is shown in terms of ornamentation of the reprised da capo sections. It has been suggested to me that this is due to the fact that the selections are from oratorios and a nod to the less secular content of the music itself. However I don’t buy into this considering that Baroque and early Classical composers as whole imported their operatic mannerisms wholesale into ecclesiastical music as a whole.

Without a doubt, Stream of Pleasure is a superlative disc. The quality of the performances cannot be faulted and both Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux do not disappoint in the high standard of their musicianship. However, when I return to this disc – which I will do often – I have a feeling that I will be programming my selection in advance to provide myself with a bespoke, shorter and ultimately more satisfying listen.

Review – Arias by Nicola Porpora, Karina Gauvin/IlComplesso Barocco/Alan Curtis(ATMA Classique)

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera on June 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Having enjoyed both Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux at a recent concert performance of Ariodante alongside the most wonderful Joyce DiDonato, I decided to search out their solo recital CDs.

Recital discs are unusual creatures. Some are faithful to one composer. Some try to capture the mood of a specific period or style. And others follow a programmatic narrative. Each has its own merits and on the whole are normally enjoyable whatever format they take. In the case of Ms Gauvin, accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco, she has dedicated the whole disc to Nicola Porpora, a contemporary of Handel. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, with the Orchestra National de France conducted by Fabien Gabel, has created a disc derived from French opera from the late 1780s to the early 1890s. A separate review will follow shortly.

So first to Ms Gauvin’s disc. The entire recital – as I have already mentioned – is drawn from operas and serenatas by Nicola Porpora. Two operas written specifically for London – Arianna in Nasso, Polifemo and La Festa d’Imeneo – provide the majority of the arias in this recital. During this time he was employed by the Opera Of The Nobility to best Handel, but considering that during that time Handel composed Ariodante and Alcina, it is hardly surprising that the ‘noble’ enterprise failed. Interestingly Gauvin/Curtis do not perform the arias in strict chronological order – Adelaide (1723); Ezio (1728); Polifemo (1735); Imeneo (1723); Angelica (1720) & Arianna in Nasso (1733). Additionally Handel himself composed operas on Ezio (1732), Imeneo (1740) and of course Acis and Galatea in English in 1718.

On the strength of this recital disc, Porpora was not a bad composer and in fact, while he does not attain the brilliance of Handel’s greatest arias, it is easy to see why they thought he could rival the Saxon.

The arias from Polifemo are well crafted and – as with Arianna in Nasso – can be directly compared with Handel as they were written to compete. The arioso-style of Aci, Amato mio bene for example with it’s recorders and mood swings is a highlight of the recital and well sung by Gauvin. The subsequent siciliana, Smanie with it’s delicate coloratura and interplay between the vocal line and the violins is equally memorable.

The arias from Adelaide, Nobil Onde and Non sempre invendicata, with the runs, trills and generous use of martial trumpets clearly show that Porpora was writing for particularly skilled singers and, more importantly, knew how to write for the voice. Non son io che parlo from Ezio has a particularly pathetic yet beautiful character as does Mi chiederesti from Imeneo and in fact there is something remarkably similar about them. Another notable aria is drawn from Angelica. With its suspensions and use of dramatic pauses its an unusually beautiful aria to be found in a serenata, and clearly the event for which it was written at the Palazzo del Principe di Torella was of particular significance.

Arianna in Nasso, might predate Polifemo but is the stronger of the two ‘London’ operas and therefore awarded more space in the recital. Following the overture, with it’s modified French-style structure, it’s easy to see why the Nobility thught they might be onto a ‘winner’. Il tuo dolce mormorio and Misera sventurata with it’s oboe obbligato are particularly fine. The final aria Si caro ti consola comes the closest to Handel in terms of beauty and musicianship with dramatic recitative interrupting and replacing the aria and makes a fitting ending to the recital.

Karina Gauvin, Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco make more than an eloquent argument for Porpora with this disc. Even more than at Ariodante at the Barbican, Ms Gauvin displays a very sure and confident technique balanced with intelligent singing and embellishment. Perhaps because it is a studio recording, her tone sounds warmers and more silken. She clearly enjoys the arias and her diction is clean and meaningful, and while it is well-nigh impossible to impart any sense of character, she makes a real bid to make these characters seem more than one dimensional.

I know that Il Complesso Barocco is not everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I think they are a great band of players. As on their Handel recordings they play with great sensitivity and style.

I did read somewhere that Handel was directly influenced by – and in some cases plagiarised from – his contemporaries. And while very few of these arias stand the comparison test, there are moment when my memory was pleasantly jolted. So if you like Handel operas, and on the merit of the performances on this disc, then this recital would make more than simply an interesting addition to your collection.

Handel – With Care (Wednesday 25 May @ The Barbican)

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera on May 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm
  • Ariodante: Joyce DiDonato
  • Ginevra: Karina Gauvin
  • Lurcanio: Nicholas Phan
  • Dalinda: Sabina Puértolas
  • King of Scotland: Matthew Brook
  • Polinesso: Marie-Nicole Lemieux
  • Odoardo: Sam Furness
  • Il Complesso Barocco & Alan Curtis)

Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco are one of the leading – if not the premier – original instrument ensembles at the moment. Their recordings of Handel’s operas are second to none and Curtis always assembles the strongest and most distinctive case.

The evening’s concert performance of Ariodante– part of a promotional tour for the new recording that they have just released – was no different. A quick glance at the cast – with three leading baroque specialists in the lead roles – meant that on paper it could not disappoint and in reality it exceeded expectation.

Ariodante has never been one of my favourite Handel operas. I have – like many people I think – enjoyed individual arias from the work, but previously the opera as a whole has not appealed. I can safely say that after this evening’s performance that has changed. I will be listening to their new recording of the opera with renewed interest.

Joyce DiDonato is a superlative, intelligent and charismatic performer. I first saw her in Hercules at the Barbican theatre in 2006 and – I must admit – have been a fan ever since. Her voice is beautifully round, robust and even through her whole – and extensive – range and she throws out pin-point precise coloratura. And her dynamic control, of light and shade, is always well judged. It is breathtaking how she can simply float a high note as was demonstrated this evening.

But what sets  DiDonato apart from many of her colleagues is how she inhabits the character she is singing. And tonight was no different. A stunning performance throughout, with a real sense of intelligence and insight of the lead character but for me – and I think many people in the auditorium – the standout moment was Scherza infida. Of course this is the most famous aria in the opera, and in Handel’s entire operatic output, but tonight was truly special. From the recitative immediately preceding, as Ariodante she was a broken man. Not only in her acting – and indeed she seemed to almost shrink into herself – but even how she modulated her voice into what can only be described as sobs. It was a searing interpretation and the whole audience seemed to collectively hold its breath until the final bar faded.

Yet this aria was merely the highpoint of an outstanding performance. Through every aria, from the pastoral arioso Qui d’amor nel suo linguaggio, the menacing Tu preparati a morire in the second act to the final, thrilling Dopo notte atra e funeste, with its perfectly executed, show-stopping bravura, DiDonato portrayed a character going through every emotion in the book.

Yet unlike many performances where one singer stands alone, this performance of Ariodante was different. DiDonato was one of a sterling team of singers.

Karina Gauvin as her spouse, created a Ginevra who was as human as her hero. Again from her opening Vezzi, lusinghe, e brio to her masterful final scenes of the Second Act, Gauvin delivered an amazing performance. Before the audience she went from princess-in-love to princess-on-the-edge, and made even her most difficult coloratura seem effortless and she spun her silvery voice around the notes.

And whenever DiDonato and Gauvin sang together, their voices blended perfectly.

Yet for me, the most pleasant surprise of the evening was Lemieux’s Polinesso. In her swagger it immediately reminded me of Kassarova’s Ruggiero from a recent performance of Alcina. With a rich, velvety voice Lemieux revelled in her character, again alternating between throwing off brilliant and effortless coloratura and beautiful legato phrases. Dover, giustizia, amor was particularly memorable. Indeed, this evening I have returned home and downloaded her latest album – Ne me refuse pas – Airs d’opéras français – and cannot wait to listen to it.

And what made each of their performances seem even more vital and alert was the incredible attention they paid to diction.

The rest of the cast, Matthew Brooks’ King, Nicholas Phan’s Lurcanio and last-minute stand-in, Sam Furness as Odoardo were all very good. Sabina Puértolas as Dalinda was a completely new singer to me. Her bright, light and flexible soprano was a delight and I look forward to hearing her again.

Needless to say Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco were exemplary in their support of the singers. Special mention must be made of the horn players who acquitted themselves more than admirably.

It is clear that Curtis is unrivalled in his understanding of, sympathy with and interpretation of Handel’s music. Tempos were perfect and the recitatives flow naturally.

I read in the programme that Giulio Cesare, Arianna in Creta and Agrippina are listed as future engagements and I, for one, cannot wait.

But this evening definitely belonged to the ladies. And the audiences showed their grateful appreciation.

Thank you one and all.

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