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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Opera arias

[I] "Enemies in love"
Natalia Kawalek, sopranoa; Jakub Józef Orlinski, altob; Il Giardino d'Amore
Dir: Stefan Plewniak
rec: August 24 - 26, 2016, Cracow, Corpus Christi Basilica
Ėvoe Records - Ėvoe 005 (© 2018) (56'29")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/PL; lyrics - translations: E/F/D/PL
Cover & track-list

Ariodante (HWV 33) (Volate Amori, ariaa); Orlando (HWV 31) (Amor č qual vento, ariaa); Partenope (HWV 27) (Furibondo spira il vento, ariab); Rinaldo (HWV 7) (Fermati, duet; Furie terribili, ariosoa; Vo far guerra, ariaa); Rodelinda (HWV 19) (Dove sei, amato bene, ariab; Io t'abbraccio, duet); Serse (HWV 40) (Troppo oltraggi la mia fede, duet); Tamerlano (HWV 18) (A dispetto d'un volto ingrato, ariab); Teseo (HWV 9) (Addio! mio caro bene, duet; Che pił si tarda omai - Stille amare, rec & ariab)

Agnieszka Mazur, Agnieszka Szwajgier, oboe; Stefan Plewniak, Paulina Wos, Karolina Habalo, Agata Habera, violin; Anna Wieczorek, viola; Dariusz Zulawek, cello; Adam Nowakowski, theorbo; Ewa Mrowca, harpsichord

[II] "Arias"
Franco Fagioli, alto
Il Pomo d'Oro
Dir: Zefira Valova
rec: March 2017, Lonigo (I), Villa San Fermo (Sala Rossa)
DGG - 479 7541 (© 2018) (79'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ariodante (HWV 33) (Dopo notte atra e funesta; Scherza, infida); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (Se in fiorito, ameno prato); Il Pastor Fido (HWV 8c) (Sento brillar nel sen); Imeneo (HWV 41) (Se potessero i sospir miei); Oreste (HWV A 11) (Agitato da fiere tempeste); Partenope (HWV 27) (Ch'io parta?); Rinaldo (HWV 7) (Cara sposa; Venti, turbini); Rodelinda (HWV 19) (Dove sei, amato bene; Pompe vane di morte); Serse (HWV 40) (Crude furie degl'orridi abissi; Frondi tenere e belle; Ombra mai fu)

Roberto de Franceschi, Olga Marulanda, oboe; Alberto Guerra, Stefano Sopranzi, bassoon; Zefira Valova, Anna Melkonyan, Heriberto Delgado, Daniela Nuzzoli, Esther Crazzolara, Maria Grokhotova, Paolo Cantamessa, Barbara Altobello, violin; Giulio D'Alessio, Isabella Bison, viola; Felix Knecht, Ludovico Minasi, cello; Nicolas Dal Maso, double bass; N.N., harpsichord

[III] Arias & Orchestral works
Benno Schachtner, alto
Händelfestspielorchester Halle
Dir: Bernhard Forck
rec: Oct 11 - 13, 2017, Halle, Volkspark
Querstand - VKJK 1419 (© 2017) (73'17")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Arminio (HWV 36) (Fatto scorta; Vado a morir); Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 6,6 (HWV 324); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (Presti omai; Se in fiorito; Va tacito); Sosarme, Re di Media (HWV 30) (M'opporrņ); Water Music (HWV 248-250) (exc)

[IV] "Melancholia - Händel's Bass Arias"
Andrea Mastroni, bass
Accademia dell'Annunciata
Dir: Riccardo Doni
rec: June 28 - 30, 2017, Abbiategrasso (Mi, IT); Sept 23 - 25, 2017, Abbiategrasso (Mi, IT), Chiesa di S. Bernardino
Musica & Viva Records - MV119 (64'12")
Liner-notes: E/IT - no lyrics
Cover & track-list

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (HWV 72) (Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori); Ariodante (HWV 33) (Invida sorte avara; Voli colla sua tromba); Concerto grosso in G, op. 6,1 (HWV 319); Ezio (HWV 29) (overture; Gia risonar d'intorno; Nasce al bosco in rozza cuna); Orlando (HWV 31) (overture; Lascia amor e siegui marte; O voi del mio poter ministri eletti - Sorge infausta una procella, rec & aria); Riccardo, Re d'Inghilterra (HWV 23) (overture; Nel mondo e nell'abisso)

Giovan Battista Graziadio, transverse flute, bassoon; Arianna Zambon, Nicola Barbaglia, Noela Del Carmen Melian Cruz, oboe; Alessandro Orlando, Antonino Patti, horn; Jonathan Pia, trumpet; Carlo Lazzaroni, Archimede De Martini, Cristiana Franco, Carmen Muńoz, Angelo Calvo, Pier Francesco Pelą, Pietro Battistoni, Matilde Tosetti, violin; Maria Bocelli, Filippo Bergo, viola; Marcello Scandelli, Maria Calvo, cello; Paolo Bogno, double bass; Elisa La Marca, Luca Di Berardino, theorbo; Riccardo Doni, harpsichord

Discs with arias from operas or other vocal works from the 18th century appear with great regularity. Within the last two years or so a stockpile of such discs has built up. Because of the large number of discs which I receive from various sources it is not always possible to review every single one of them, and that also goes for such recital discs. Moreover, opera is not exactly a great love of mine, and I rather focus on other repertoire. However, recital discs can be interesting, for instance in that they give young singers an opportunity to show their capabilities, or shed light on repertoire, which is hardly known. The latter is not the case here: Handel's vocal music belongs among the most frequently recorded repertoire from the late baroque period.

The first is called "Enemies in love". This title seems to be inspired by the duet of Armida and Rinaldo, 'Fermati', from the opera Rinaldo of 1711. As the liner-notes put it: "In the duo of representatives of two camps (...) a rapid exchange of perspectives takes place: short broken phrases intertwine even closer, wrapping the protagonists with a surprising feeling, that of hatred smoothly transforming into fascination". However, there are also other duets, such as 'Io t'abbraccio' from Rodelinda (1725). There is quite some variety in the character of the arias. This way the listener gets a pretty good impression of the scope of emotions Handel has so impressively translated into music.

However, a disc like this is not meant to convert any music lover to Handel operas. They are so frequently performed and recorded, and arias from his stage works are so often recorded separately, that very few music lovers will not be acquainted with this repertoire. Moreover, we only get well-known arias and duets here, and they are taken from some of Handel's best-known operas. Most music lovers, and especially those who have a particular interest in Handel's operas, may want to get to know the vocal qualities of the two singers from Poland, Jakub Józef Orlinski and Natalia Kawalek. They are mentioned in this order on the cover, as it seems that Orlinski is the main singer here. He has already made quite a career in opera, and especially in Handel, but I had never heard him before in this kind of repertoire. I have to say that I like him: he has a beautiful voice; 'Dove sei' from Rodelinda demonstrates its sweetness. However, he can also be quite powerful, for instance in 'Furibondo' from Partenope. In the brilliant coloratura he shows his impressive agility. He avoids a wide and incessant vibrato; there is sometimes a slight tremolo in his voice, which is regrettable, but not really disturbing. His ornamentation is stylish, and he generally avoids to go overboard, rewriting as it were complete lines in the dacapos. However, in the cadenzas he regularly crosses the tessitura of his part. Natalia Kawalek does the same; I am less impressed by her contributions. She has a powerful voice, as she demonstrates in 'Furie terribili' from Rinaldo. Her low register is strong, but not very nice to listen to, as it is unpleasantly sharp. According to the liner-notes, in 'Amor č qual vento' from Orlando the shepherdess Dorinda compares "with grace and fantasy" the dynamics of falling in love to the changing of the winds. However, there is nothing graceful in the way Kawalek sings this aria. The duets come off quite well, as the singers are able to adapt their voices to each other.

The orchestra is a bit small, and tries to compensate that with some powerful playing, but the sound is often too snappy and too abrasive. The harpsichord part in 'Vo far guerra' is exaggerated; could this be (partly) the arrangement by William Babell? The booklet is a little annoying in that it includes translations of the lyrics in several languages, but not printed side by side, which makes it hard to follow the text while listening.

In contrast to Orlinski, Franco Fagioli is an established force in the world of baroque opera. He has sung many Handel operas onstage, and participated in many recordings. Unfortunately that basically means that one can kiss them goodbye. It would be an exaggeration to say that he single-handedly destroyed them, as many of his idiosyncracies are shared by colleagues of his. But he is definitely one of the worst in ignoring some of the fundamental principles of historical performance practice in the singing department. The disc of Handel arias which was released by DGG (by the way: what has happened to the Archiv label?) abundantly demonstrates his shortcomings. In several of my reviews I particularly condemned his incessant and wide vibrato, which he apparently can't do without. From that we have to conclude that it is a technical defect. But that is not the only thing which makes his performances pretty much unbearable. His diction is not very good, to put it mildly. Especially when he is singing loudly and in his highest register, it is almost impossible to understand the text. One really needs the lyrics in the booklet to know what exactly he is singing.

He has a wide tessitura, which is an asset, but that should not be demonstrated at every possible occasion. In 'Crude furie' from Serse he explores the outer ends of his tessitura within a very short space of time, which is completely unnecessary, and, frankly, rather ridiculous. Here he demonstrates also his tendency to overdo the addition of ornaments and cadenzas. The cadenza in 'Venti, turbini' from Rinaldo is excessive. His dwelling on ornaments and cadenzas sometimes brings the music almost to a standstill. 'Se in fiorito' from Guilio Cesare and 'Scherza, infida from Ariodante are examples of this; the result is that they are pretty boring. Like Orlinski he sings one of Handel's most beautiful arias, 'Dove sei', from Rodelinda. Orlinski may still be in the early stages of his career, but his performance is so much better and makes a lasting impression, whereas Fagioli's performance is mainly annoying. The booklet includes the complete lyrics with translations as well as a list of the members of the orchestra. However, the name of the poor harpsichordist, who had to take part in this ordeal, has been omitted.

The third disc is a bit different, as about half of the programme consists of orchestral music. The concept behind the programme is not entirely clear. If its aim is to give Benno Schachtner the opportunity to show his credentials in the field of opera, it should have included more arias. A recording of the orchestral pieces was not really needed. Handel's concerti grossi are available in many recordings, and that also goes for his Water Music. Moreover, a selection of pieces from the latter hardly makes sense.

So let's focus on Schachtner's performances of the arias from three different operas. It is nice to see that he included arias from some of Handel's lesser-known operas Sosarme and Arminio, certainly if one compares them with Giulio Cesare. He has a very nice voice, which I have heard and appreciated in songs and in sacred music, but to date not in opera. It seems to me that Schachtner does best in the more introverted arias. 'Vado a morir' from Arminio is the best among his contributions. 'Fatto scorta' from the same opera is less convincing, especially as Schachtner tends to be too loud at the top notes of his part. Most disappointing is 'Va tacito' from Giulio Cesare, which lacks drama. However, it must be said that the orchestra doesn't really help here. Its playing is pretty flat and not exactly theatrical. The instrumental pieces are alright, although the first section of the overture from the Water Music (largo) is rather lacklustre. The inclusion of other percussion instruments in addition to the timpani is not called for.

It seems that Schachtner is making a career in opera in recent years. Like I wrote, I haven't heard him in this capacity, and this disc gives me no reason to believe that he is an opera star in the making. But I postpone my judgement until I have heard him in a really good theatrical setting, in a complete opera performance and with a better orchestra.

In the baroque era there was a special preference for high voices. The main roles were scored for sopranos, mezzo-sopranos or altos, and they were often sung by castratos. Lower voices, such as tenors and basses, were mostly confined to roles of minor characters - sometimes they even did not have an aria, or just one - and in some cases the villain of the piece was a bass. This explains why there are many more discs with arias sung by high voices than recordings of tenors and basses. However, composers were also practical: if they had a particularly good singer at their disposal, they were only too keen to write substantial parts for them or to adapt pre-existing music for their voice, no matter what its tessitura was. Certainly Handel did so, as the disc by Andrea Mastroni proves.

The central figure is the bass Antonio Paolo Montagnana, who closely cooperated with Handel from 1731 to 1733 and from 1737-1738. In between he sang for the rival company, the Opera of the Nobility, in operas by Porpora (who was also his teacher), Hasse, Bononcini and others. During the first period of cooperation with Handel he participated in revivals of operas as Admeto and Giulio Cesare as well as in first performances of Ezio and Sosarme. In the second period he sang in Faramondo and Serse. He was a singer of impressive skills, and Handel's arias bear witness to that. Among his features were a wide compass as well as "depth, power, mellowness and peculiar accuracy of intonation in hitting intervals", according to Charles Burney. Most pieces on the programme were either specifically written for Montagnana or adapted to his voice.

Andrea Mastroni was a new name to me, which is probably hardly surprising, considering that to date he has mainly participated in performances of 19th-century operas. That makes it all the more surprsing that this disc is very good. Technically Mastroni's singing is quite impressive, with regard to his tessitura and his remarkable agility as he shows in the virtuosic coloratura in many arias. 'Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori' from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is a real tour de force, where Mastroni has to go into his falsetto register to sing the top notes. This is not just a demonstration of singing technique: stylistically these performances are convincing as well. He largely avoids excesses in the ornamentation and cadenza department. His singing is not free of vibrato, but it is narrow and rather slow, and therefore hardly disturbing. It certainly does not withhold me from recommending this disc, which is a worthy monument for a singer who undoubtedly inspired Handel and others who heard him. It is regrettable that the booklets omits the lyrics.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Franco Fagioli
Jakub Józef Orlinski
Benno Schachtner
Accademia dell'Annunciata
Händelfestspielorchester Halle
Il Giardino d'Amore
Il Pomo d'Oro

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