Friday, April 29, 2022

Handel: Opera arias

Discs with arias from operas (and sometimes oratorios) appear regularly. Every year a number of them land on my desk. I find it not easy to review them, for several reasons. First, I am not a great lover of opera, and that is the reason that I don't review opera recordings on a regular basis. Second, the isolation of arias from their dramatic context is unsatisfactory, even thoug the texts are mostly of such a general nature that they can be inserted in almost any opera. Third, I am not very happy with the modern trends in singing baroque music, as to often they have little to do with what we know about the aesthetic ideals of the time in which the music was written and performed.

Among singers who focus on baroque opera, Handel is one of the favourite composers. No wonder then that recitals which include (almost) only arias from his operas are very common. Four of them are the subject of this review. The first is by Sandrine Piau [1], who can be called a veteran in baroque opera and who has a special liking of Handel. Her recital has not avoided the danger of many such recitals: the inclusion of some 'evergreens'. We find here such frequently-performed arias as 'Piangerò la sorte mia' from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, 'Desterò dell'empia Dite' from Amadigi di Gaula and the inevitable 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from Rinaldo. A surprising choice is the aria 'Alla salma infedel porga la pena' from Lucrezia, not an opera but a cantata. The title is also the complete text, and it is an example of a piece which loses its meaning without its context: "And may it inflict its punishment on my faithless body". What is 'it'? The listener who does not know this cantata is left in the dark about the meaning of this aria. Piau is one of the stars of baroque opera, and that is understandable if one listens to this recital. Her ability in expressing the emotions of a character is brilliantly exposed in 'Piangerò la sorte mia' with its strongly contrasting A and B sections. One of the highlights is 'Ah! mio cor! from Alcina. This aria is a good specimen of a piece in which the use of the dacapo form doesn't make any sense. One understands why later some composers wanted to get rid of it. Piau is a singer I have to get used to; recently I admired her performances in a recording of Handel's Brockes Passion, but on other occasions I have had problems with her style of singing. That is the case her as well. She often uses more vibrato than is justifiable, but - unlike many of her colleages - she does not use it indiscriminately. The ornamentation and the cadenzas are also often overdone. In 'Desterò dell'empia Dite' her cadenza in the dacapo seems at odds with the tenor of the text. On balance, though, I have enjoyed this recital more than I expected, especially as Piau is more than most other singers able to explore the dramatic features of an aria. It helps that Les Paladins is not a chamber ensemble but a full-blooded orchestra and that the recording was made in a theatre.

The next disc is from a singer I had never heard before and even did not know by name. For her recital - which seems to be the soundtrack for a videostory of her own making (which I have not seen) - Héloïse Mas [2] selected arias of various characters, mostly female, but also some male, such as that of Orpheus from Parnasso in festa and that of Dardanus from Amadigi di Gaula. When I started listening I noted that she has dramatic talent, but little understanding of baroque singing. In the course of time I changed my views a little. In fact, her performances are less dramatic than I had expected. From that angle the cantata La Lucrezia is rather disappointing. Ms Mas is able to sing pretty loud, but that as such has little to do with a dramatic interpretation. I did not like her pretty wide vibrato, but my fear that she would use it indiscriminately, did not entirely come true, even though she uses it too often. She softens it in 'Ho perso il caro ben', the aria of Orpheus in Parnasso in festa. Scherza infida from Ariodante is also one of the better items in this recital. However, her performances are pretty far away from real baroque singing, but that is something that unfortunately is accepted these days, even by those who should know better. The orchestral contributions are not very colourful. I find the playing of the London Handel Orchestra rather bland. All in all, I can't see how this recital brings us closer to understanding and appreciating Handel's art in the department of dramatic music.

Eva Zaïcik [3] is a singer I first heard in a recording of Bach's Magnificat, under the direction of Valentin Tournet. I appreciated her singing, and that is the reason I was curious to hear her in very different repertoire. Listening to her voice, one does probably not expect her to perform opera, but the Alpha disc with the title "Royal Handel" reveals that she knows her way here too. The programme "is intended as a musical portrait of the first Royal Academy of Music", according to the liner-notes. This explains why arias by two other composers are also included: Attilio Ariosti and Giovanni Bononcini. However, it is Handel who is the main composer here. Eva Zaïcik has made a fine selection of arias which suit her voice well. I particularly liked 'Stille amare' from Tolomeo, 'Ah! tu non sai' from Ottone and 'Ombra cara' from Radamisto. These are pieces of a rather intimate character, and there Eva Zaïcik's qualities come to the fore most clearly. She has a lovely voice, flexible and warm, and it has a kind of intimacy of itself. The short aria 'Strazio, scempio, furia e morte' from Bononcini's Crispo is very different, and there are also more extroverted arias by Handel. She deals with them rather well, but avoids the yelling and screaming that some singers think are necessary to depict the feelings of the protagonist. It is also nice that Eva Zaïcik pays attention to the text; it is mostly clearly intelligible, not destroyed by a wide vibrato that is applied indiscriminately, as is so often the case. The orchestra is much smaller than what Handel had at his disposal, and that compromises the dramatic impact of these performances, but probably suits Zaïcik better than a larger ensemble. Another factor is here the recording venue: a church, with its reverberation, is not the ideal venue for an opera recital. That said, I have really enjoyed this disc, much more than most recordings of this kind.

'Handelian Pyrotechnics' is the title of the fourth and last recital disc to be reviewed here. The singer is the male alto William Towers [4]. He is probably not the best-known representative of his voice type who participates in opera performances. I at least can't remember having heard them in opera. His modesty, as he shows in his liner-notes, is refreshing. Rather than recording a recital as "self-promotion and general career-advancement" he preferred to record arias from roles he had actually sung on stage. The result is this disc, which certainly does not include only arias with pyrotechnics, but also more introverted items. Unfortunately there are quite a number which one has to reckon among the 'evergreens', such as 'Ombra mai fu' which opens the disc. However, there is enough variety, and Towers also selected some lesser-known pieces. I like his voice, which is strong but can also be sensible. Overall I like his interpretations, and his ornamentation is tasteful. What I don't like is that in some arias he exceeds the range of his part, and goes to extreme heights. The pyrotechnics don't always come off that comfortably. The Armonico Consort plays with one instrument per part, which is not in line with what Handel would have used in the theatre, but in a recital like this that is probably acceptable. However, the Armonico Consort is not the most engaging ensemble I have heard in this kind of repertoire. In comparison, Le Consort in Eva Zaïcik's recital is doing a better job.

[1] "Enchantresses"
Sandrine Piau, soprano; Les Paladins/Jérôme Corréas
Alpha 765 (© 2020) details

[2] "Anachronistic Hearts / Les coeurs anachroniques - Haendel arias"
Héloïse Mas, mezzo-soprano; London Handel Orchestra/Laurence Cummings
muso mu-045 (© 2020) details

[3] "Royal Handel"
Eva Zaïcik, mezzo-soprano; Le Consort
Alpha 662 (© 2020) details

[4] "Handelian Pyrotechnics"
William Towers, alto; Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
Signum Classics SIGCD658 (© 2019) details