musica Dei donum

CD reviews

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (HWV 72)

Stefanie True, soprano; Luciana Mancini, mezzosoprano; Mitchell Sandler, bass
Contrasto Armonico
Dir.: Marco Vitale

rec: October 15 - 17, 2007, Delft (Neth), Oud-Katholieke Kerk
Brilliant Classics - 93665 (2 CDs) (1.25'20")

Nico Chaves, recorder; Diego Nadra, recorder, oboe; Femke Lunter, Nicolas Isabelle, trumpet; Joanna Huszcza, Enrique Gomez, Antina Hugosson, Conor Jacobson, James Hewitt, Erin Chen, Evan Few, Santiago Rodriguez Pozo, Magdalena Kuzminska, violin; Toni Arregui, viola; Marta Semkiw, Tulio Rondón, cello; Luis Reyes Ticò, double bass, violone; Marco Vitale, harpsichord

One of the most remarkable things about Handel's stay in Italy is the fact that he, who had travelled south to learn the Italian way of composing in no time developed into one of Italy's most celebrated composers. As a result he got many opportunities to perform his own music, and also was in demand as a composer for occasional music.
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is also the result of such a request. In 1708 he only spent 10 weeks in Naples, but apparently his reputation had preceded him. He was immediately asked to compose a serenata, in all probability for the wedding of Tolomeo Saverio Gallo, the fifth Duke of Alvito, and Beatrice Tocco di Montemiletto, Princess of Acaja. This should take place on 19 July 1708; Handel completed the score on 16 June. Apparently Handel's work made quite an impression, as it was performed again at the occasion of weddings in 1711 and in 1713.

The genre of the serenata is not easy to define precisely, but generally speaking it is a work written in honour of a specific (aristocratic) person, often the employer of a composer or someone of his relatives. In most serenatas the virtues of that person are specifically referred to and hailed. Handel's serenata is different: the subject is exactly the kind of stuff operas were made of. The story of the love between Acis and Galatea which is threatened by the cyclops Polyphemus, based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, was well-known and as it demonstrated the constancy of the love between Acis and Galatea, it was well suited for a piece to be performed at a wedding.
Handel has set the libretto, written by Nicola Giuvo, as a kind of mini opera, with a sequence of recitatives and dacapo arias and some duets and trios. Although the performance wasn't staged the serenata is quite dramatic, and there is lively interaction between the protagonists.

There is no overture, so the Serenata starts with a duet of Acis and Galatea, where the female singers show the good blending of their voices, although they are rather different in character. Stefanie True uses a bit more vibrato than I had liked, but it doesn't spoil the blending with Luciana Mancini, who sings with a minimum of vibrato. The latter shows her qualities in the first aria, 'Sforzano a piangere' (I am compelled to weep), which is dominated by descending figures. The sorrowful character of this aria is perfectly realised by Ms Mancini's singing. The rather dark colour of her voice perfectly suites this aria anyway.

In the first aria of Polyphemus, 'Sibilar l'angui d'Aletto' Mitchell Sandler gives a perfect characterisation of his personality, rough and uncivilised, but without falling into the trap of exaggerating his rudeness and of making him the laughing stock of the piece. The reply of Galatea in her aria 'Benché tuoni' is brilliantly sung and played, at high speed but perfectly articulated. In Acis' aria 'Dell'aquila l'artigli' the basso continuo part is realised on the harpsichord only; Marco Vitale does a fine job here, reflecting some of the brilliance Handel was famous for.

Polyphemus' aria 'Fra l'ombre e gl'onori' is an example both of Handel's often virtuosic writing for the voice and of his ability to translate text into music. The huge leaps in the vocal part, in which Polyphemus expresses his unsecurity in regard to love, comparing his tribulations with the fluttering of the butterfly, are technically very demanding, but Mitchell Sandler realises them with impressive ease. Another highlight is Acis' aria 'Qui l'augel da pianta in pianta', in which there is also an expressive solo part for the violin. Next is another equally expressive aria of Galatea, 'Se m'ami, o caro'. Luciana Mancini gives another fine performance here, giving the right attention to the key word 'sospirar' (sigh). And in the last aria by Acis, when he is killed by Polyphemus, 'Verso già l'alma col sangue', Stefanie True gives the best performance of her part in this work.

From what I have written one may conclude that I am quite impressed by this recording. It is the first CD recording of this ensemble, and in my view it has made a very good start of what seems to be the first of a series of recordings for Brilliant Classics. Apart from the fact that Stefanie True uses more vibrato than I think is desirable - although not crossing the line of what is acceptable - I am happy with the way the singers are realising their part and their overall level of singing. The only slightly disappointing thing is the way the recitatives are performed. A bit more rhythmic freedom had made this performance even more dramatic and increased the amount of interaction between the protagonists. The orchestra is doing a very fine job here, with some excellent contributions of the violinist Joanna Huszcza and oboist Diego Nadra.

I am looking forward to the next projects of Marco Vitale and if they are of the same level of this recording they will be a great increase of the Handel discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Contrasto Armonico

CD Reviews