musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Handel's last primadonna - Giulia Frasi in London"

Ruby Hughes, soprano
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Dir: Laurence Cummings

rec: July 27, 28 & 30, 2017, London, Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Chandos - CHSA 0403 (© 2018) (78'25")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778): Alfred (version 1753) (Gracious Heav'n, O hear me!); Artaxerxes (Why is death for ever late); Vincenzo CIAMPI (1719?-1762): Adriano in Siria (O Dio! Mancar mi sento); Il trionfo di Camilla (Là per l'ombrosa sponda); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Jephtha (HWV 70) (Ye sacred priests - Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods, rec & aria); Solomon (HWV 67) (Will the sun forget to streak); Susanna (HWV 66) (Crystal streams in murmurs flowing); The choice of Hercules (HWV 69) (There the brisk sparkling nectar drain); Theodora (HWV 68) ([act II, sc 2] sinfonia; O thou bright Sun! - With darlness deep as is my woe, rec & aria; Symphony of soft musick; But why art thou disquieted - O that I on wings cou'd rise, rec & aria); Philip HAYES (1738-177): Telemachus (Soon arrives thy fatal hour); John Christopher SMITH (1712-1795): Paradise Lost (Oh! do not, Adam, exercise on me thy hatred - It comes! it comes! it must be death!, rec & song); Rebecca (But see, the night with silent pace steals on - O balmy Sleep!, rec & song);

During the 17th and 18th centuries large numbers of operas and oratorios were composed and performed. In most cases we know the name of the composer, but the names of those who brought his music to life are mostly not known. Only the most famous of them, especially castratos, are still known. With any luck we also know the repertoire they sang. In recent years quite a number of discs have been released which are devoted to their art. Even though the composer always comes first, such discs deserve a wholehearted welcome. After all, a singer may be just an instrument, he/she is indispensable for bringing music to life. A performance can even make or break an opera.

The present disc is devoted to Giulia Frasi, probably mostly known to Handel lovers, but not to the public at large. That may also be due to the fact that she sang in works which Handel composed late in his career, when the time of his success in the field of Italian opera was something of the past. Although she was Italian by birth, she often sang in works on English texts. The programme of this disc, which is the result of a reseach project by Ruby Hughes, in collaboration with Laurence Cummings and David Vickers, offers an insight into her repertoire.

It is not known when and where Giulia Frasi was born, and little about her formative years, except that she received her vocal training in Milan. She made her debut in Lodi in 1740 and then sang in several other Italian cities. In 1742 she came to London, where she was engaged for the King's Theatre. Until 1761 she participated in at least fourteen opera seasons. From 1743 onwards she was associated with the Fund for Decay'd Musicians or their Families and took part in its annual concerts. It is in the concert of 1746 that she first sang music on English texts from Handel's pen. It is notable that she convinced a critical observer of the music scene, Charles Burney, who stated that "having come to this country at an early period of her life, she pronounced our language in singing in a more articulate and intelligible manner than the natives (...)".

In March 1748 Frasi participated in the revival of Judas Maccabaeus. It was the start of a long and fruitful collaboration between the singer and the composer. The next year she took care of the principal soprano roles in Susanna and Solomon. The programme of this disc opens with an aria from the former oratorio, and closes with one from the latter. In between we get some more Handel: in March 1750 Frasi sang in Theodora, in March 1751 in the ode The Choice of Hercules and in February 1752 in the oratorio Jephtha. However, the most interesting part of this disc is devoted to music by composers who seldom appear on disc, even if at least some of their names are certainly not unfamiliar.

Take, for instance, John Christopher Smith. He was Handel's assistant and after the composer's death he performed three pasticcios with Handel's music. He was also active as a composer himself, and here he is represented with arias from two of his oratorios. Paradise Lost dates from 1760 and is inspired by John Milton's poem. In this work Frasi sang the role of Eve. The next year she participated in Smith's oratorio Rebecca, which is based on Genesis 24, which describes how Abraham's servant goes to find a wife for his master's son Isaac. In the end he takes Rebecca with him, a role sung by Frasi.

Thomas Augustine Arne lived and worked in the shadow of Handel, but managed to make a career of his own. He considerably contributed to music for the theatre, but also wrote two oratorios, odes and cantatas as well as many smaller secular vocal pieces and some instrumental music. Here we hear arias from two operas, like all his works for the stage on English texts. In 1753 Frasi sang in his masque Alfred; for this revised version Arne added the aria 'Gracious Heav'n, O hear me', to be sung by her. It was also in an opera by Arne that she made her last appearance at the stage: in 1769 she sang the role of Arbaces in Artaxerxes. The arias included here can serve as a good introduction to these operas, which are available in complete recordings (Alfred - McGegan, 1999; Artaxerxes - Ian Page, 2011).

The remaining composers are largely unknown quantities. Philip Hayes was the son of William Hayes, one of the greatest admirers and promoters of Handel's music, who performed many of Handel's oratorios in Oxford. Handel's influence is notable in his own compositions, and that also goes for the music by his second son Philip. His oeuvre includes some oratorios, liturgical music and metrical psalms as well as some secular and instrumental music. He wrote one work for the stage: the masque Telemachus, which dates from the mid-1760s. It is not clear whether Frasi sang in this work; according to David Vickers, in his liner-notes, an advertised performance in 1764 seems to have been cancelled. The question, then, is why the aria by Parthenope, 'Soon arrives thy fatal hour', is included here.

The two arias by Vincenzo Ciampi document Giulia Frasi's opera performances in London. Ciampi's birthplace is not known, but he received his musical education in Naples. From 1748 to 1756 he worked in London. Ruby Hughes sings arias from two of his operas, both performed in 1750, Adriano in Siria, an adaptation of the original Venetian version, and Il trionfo di Camilla. The latter was received badly and was performed only twice. However, John Walsh published six arias from this opera, among them the one included here.

One can only admire the efforts that Ruby Hughes, with the assistance of Vickers and Cummings, has put into this project. This way the life of an artist, who imdoubtedly made a considerable impression on Handel and the London audience, is brought to life. But this disc is more than that: it also gives an impression of musical life in London in the mid-18th century. The inclusion of arias from some works which are hardly known, further contributes to this disc's importance. If one listens to the arias selected from these works, there is no reason to ignore them. One would hope that performers are willing to delve into the oeuvre of the likes of Hayes, Smith and Arne, rather than performing the same well-known stuff over and over again.

Ruby Hughes sings these arias rather well. It is true, she uses more vibrato now and then than one would like, but it is by far not as bad as in many other recordings by colleagues of hers. In no way did it prevent me from enjoying this disc. It opens nicely with the beautiful aria 'Crystal streams in murmurs flowing' from Handel's oratorio Susanna, which receives a subtle interpretation. One of the highlights is the dark-coloured aria of Eve 'It comes! it comes! it must be death!' from Smith's Paradise lost. Ruby Hughes sings the aria 'Oh Dio! Mancar mi sento' from Ciampi's Adriano in Siria with great intensity; the orchestra considerably contributes to its expression through its refined playing. Hughes shows a different and more powerful side of her talent in the other aria by Ciampi, 'Là per l'ombrosa sponda' from his opera Il trionfo di Camilla. In the orchestra we note the excellent contributions of the horns.

Overall, this is a good combination of interesting repertoire and fine singing and playing. Therefore this disc deserves a whole-hearted welcome.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Ruby Hughes
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

CD Reviews