musica Dei donum

CD reviews

George Frideric HANDEL, Antonio VIVALDI: "Seconda Donna"

Julia Böhme, contralto
La Folia Barockorchester
Dir: Robin Peter Müller

rec: April 2015, Dresden, Palais im Großen Garten
Accent - ACC 24356 (© 2019) (50'01")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Berenice, regina d'Egitto (HWV 38) (Gelo, avvampo); Floridante (HWV 14) (Notte cara); Lotario (HWV 26) (Arma lo sguardo; Furie del crudo averno; Quel superbo); Radamisto (HWV 12a) (Quando mai spietata; Son contenta); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Argippo (RV 697) (Se lento ancora il fulmine); Farnace (RV 711) (Forse, o caro, in questi accenti; Lascia di sospirar); Orlando Furioso (RV 728) (Amorose ai rai del sole; Asconderò il mio sdegno; Se cresce un torrente; Vorresti amor da me)

Magdalena Karolac, oboe; Robin Peter Müller, Pia Grutschus, violin; Sibille Klepper, viola; Gerd Fischer-Baudys, cello; Sophia Scheifler, double bass; Vanessa Heinisch, theorboe; Naoki Kitaya, harpsichord

Handel and Vivaldi on one disc seems a logical combination. They were contemporaries, both were virtuosos on their instruments - the keyboard and the violin respectively - and both were prolific opera composers. They could have met during Handel's sojourn in Italy, and especially when Handel was in Venice 1709/10 at the occasion of the performance of his opera Agrippina. However, if they have met, there is no documentary evidence of that. Handel certainly knew Vivaldi's music, but if the latter also knew his music is anything but certain.

How to proceed when one wants to put together a programme of music by the two composers which makes some sense? Julia Böhme and Robin Peter Müller, director of the La Folia Barockorchester, decided to record a programme of music from their respective operas. They focus on arias by female characters, who are in the shadow of the leading prima donnas, as the title of their programme indicates, "Seconda Donna". That does not mean that these characters play a minor role or are less interesting. In Handel's opera Berenice Selene, sister of Queen Berenice, has just three arias, one in each of the three acts. In Vivaldi's Farnace, on the other hand, Tamiri, wife of King Farnace, plays a major role.

It would have been easy to select arias from some of Handel's most famous operas. One of the nice things of the present disc is that we hear arias from some operas which are not that well-known, such as Lotario and Radamisto. In comparison, it is much easier to find arias in Vivaldi's oeuvre that are not that well-known. It may be true that Vivaldi's operas are regularly performed these days, but they still don't have the status of some of Handel's most popular theatrical works, such as Ariodante or Giulio Cesare.

Recitals of opera arias are always a bit problematic as they are isolated from their dramatic context. The texts usually don't refer specifically to characters in the opera, and they were sometimes included in other operas as well. Even so, for the listener it is helpful to understand the situation and the identity of the protagonist. In the booklet each aria or group of arias by the same character is introduced by a short description of the story of the opera and some explanation of the context of the arias. That is most helpful and deserves praise, as this kind of information is often omitted in opera recitals.

The programme opens with an accompanied recitative and two arias by Matilde from Handel's opera Lotario. She is characterised as "the type of merciless ruler, with an affinity for violence and intrigue and obsessed with power". The recitative Furie del crudo averno makes that very clear: "Furies of gloomy Avernus, where are you? Alas, I can hear you; you monsters are tearing my heart apart. Let us take revenge, let us rampage!" Selene, in Berenice, is described as a "loveable person (...) who can silently feel and process both joy and suffering". The latter is expressed in the aria Gelo, avvampo: "I freeze and burn to think of this, and my icy, fiery torment doubles".

Elmira, in Floridante, is described as an "innocently loving" young woman, who at the end of the opera is crowned as ruler. Notte cara is a dreamy aria, whose second section is an accompanied recitative. Lastly, from Radamisto we hear two arias by Zenobia, wife of King Radamisto, who is willing to sacrifice herself to save the city in Son contenta: "I am content to die, pitiless fate and cruel stars, to appease your wrath". It does not happen, but in the second act she plunges into the river. Quando mai spietata sorte is a very short aria of just two lines: "When, o you adverse fate, will my soul finish its sufferings?"

From Vivaldi's Farnace two arias are included. One of them is by Tamiri, who resists the orders of her husband to kill their son (Forse, o caro, in questi accenti). The other is by Selinda, Farnace's sister, the only character who supports Tamiri. She seduces two characters and plays them off against each other (Lascia di sospirar). Orlando furioso was Vivaldi's second opera on this subject; his first of 1714, which has survived only in fragments, was a disaster, but his second of 1727 did not fare that much better. Two of the four arias performed here are by the sorceress Alcina, who falls successively in love with two characters. Amorose ai rai del sole is from Act I, Vorresti amor da me from Act II. The remaining two arias are by Bradamante, "a type of heroic and battle-hardened countess, a free spirit". Asconderò il mio sdegno expresses her determination to break the spell of Alcina over her fiancé Ruggiero. When the spell is broken, Ruggiero suggests that Bradamante should kill him (Se cresce un torrente).

The disc ends with an aria from Argippo, an opera which was long thought to be lost. Reconstructions on the basis of several sources have been made, but Se lento ancora il fulmine is from a pasticcio on this subject, which includes six original arias by Vivaldi.

Over the years I have heard quite a number of recordings of opera arias. I was mostly disappointed about the way they were sung, just as I was and am often disappointed about complete opera recordings. In most of them the style of singing is pretty far away from what we know about the aesthetic ideals of the baroque era. Too often the singers are no specialists in early music, and also perform in later repertoire, with ensembles and conductors who care very little, if at all, about how the composers wanted their music to be performed. From that angle the present disc is a breath of fresh air. I have not often enjoyed a recital of opera arias as much as this time. I did not know Julia Böhme, but I hope to hear much more from her. The booklet tells that she is a specialist in early music and collaborates with some of the leading ensembles in the field. That shows here.

"Her vocal elegance and expressiveness, historically sourced style and unique timbre as just as characteristic of her as a performer as her dramatic intensity and versatility", according to the booklet. Normally I take such eulogies with a grain of salt, but this description is spot-on. She has a lovely voice, which has the flexibility to deal with the elaborate coloratura. Böhme is very responsive to different situations and characters. She handles Handel's Notte cara just as well as Vivaldi's rage aria Asconderò il mio sdegno. The latter is sung at high speed, but due to her excellent articulation, the text comes off perfectly. She colours her voice nicely, for instance in the way she illustrates "riderà" (laugh) in Handel's Arma lo sguarda.

It is so nice to be able to understand the text. In too many opera recordings one hardly understands a word of an aria, but that is very different here. There is quite some dynamic differentiation, between phrases, but also between words and syllables. This is speechlike singing in the true sense of the word. The ornamentation is exactly as it should be: enough to make a dacapo interesting, but without any eccentricities. Böhme stays away from recomposing complete lines and avoids exaggerated cadenzas. And let us not forget that there is no incessant vibrato here, and no screaming at high notes. This is how theatrical music of the baroque era should be sung.

The ensemble is small - certainly smaller than was common in baroque theatres in Handel's and Vivaldi's time - but plays excellently and follows Julia Böhme every step of the way to a truly expressive performance. I strongly recommend this disc to anyone who likes baroque opera as it was meant to be. And please, more experienced colleagues of Julia Böhme: have a good listen to this.

I need to add a word of caution: this recording dates from 2015. It is hard to understand why is has taken so long to release it. I have not heard any other (later) recording, so I don't know if Julia Böhme still sings the way she does here. I sincerely hope so.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Julia Böhme
La Folia Barockorchester

CD Reviews