musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Opera Arias from the 18th Century

[I] "Tempesta - Handel & Vivaldi"
Blandine Staskiewicz, mezzo-soprano
Les Ambassadeurs
Dir: Alexis Kossenko
rec: Sept 7 -11, 2014, Paris, Temple St. Marcel
Glossa - GCD 923503 (© 2015) (64'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Agrippina (HWV 6) (overture; Pensieri, voi mi tormentate); Alessandro (HWV 21) (Brilla nell'alma); Radamisto (HWV 12a) (Quando mai spietata sorte); Serse (HWV 40) (Frondi tenere - Ombra mai fù, rec & aria); Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): Adriano in Siria (Torbido in volto); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Carlo il Calvo (Spesso di nubi cinto); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Andromeda liberata (RV Anh 117) (Sovvente il solo); Griselda (RV 718) (Agitata da due venti); L'Olimpiade (RV 725) (overture; Siam navi all'onde algenti); La verità in cimento (RV 739) (Io son fra l'onde)

[II] George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Arie per la Cuzzoni"
Hasnaa Bennani, soprano
Les Muffatti
Dir: Peter Van Heyghen
rec: Feb 2015, St. Truiden, Begijnhofkerk
Ramée - RAM 1501 (© 2015) (73'57")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Admeto (HWV 22) (ballo di larve; sinfonia; sinfonia); Alessandro (HWV 21) (Nò, più soffrir non voglio); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (Che sento? - Se pietà di me non senti, rec & aria); Ottone (HWV 15) (concerto; È tale Otton - Falsa imagine, rec & aria); Rodelinda (HWV 19) (Ombre, piante, urne funeste!; Se'l mio duol non è si forte); Scipione (HWV 20) (overture; marcia; sinfonia; Scoglio d'immota fronde); Siroe, Re di Persia (HWV 24) (Non credo che sian finti - Or mi perdo di speranza, rec & aria); Tamerlano (HWV 18) (Non è più tempo); Tolomeo, Re di Egitto (HWV 25) (overture; Torni omai la pace all'alma)

Love is the main subject of almost all secular music in the baroque era. The main forms are opera and chamber cantata. The arias are the opportunity to dwell on several aspects of - often unhappy - love or to express the feelings of one of the protagonists. Librettists often used images to depict aspects of love and the feelings of lovers. Images from nature were especially popular: the flutter of the butterfly could be used in an aria in which the protagonist complaints about the inconstancy of his or her lover. The trials and tribulations of love are often also compared to a ship at sea, yawing on the waves.

Blandine Staskiewicz selected a number of arias of a specific genre, the aria di tempesta. On the one hand the image of a storm can be used metaphorically for the feelings of a character. On the other hand librettists used the meteorological phenomenon of a storm - in particular a storm at sea - to depict the mind of a lover swinging back and forth between hope and fear. A programme devoted to such arias is not all about virtuosic fireworks; there is also room for a more introverted look at things.

In the booklet Ms Staskiewicz writes: "(...) Tempesta recounts the story of the tempest encountered by the heart when facing up to its wide-ranging amorous emotions. I wanted quick and slow arias to alternate, the purpose being to illustrate the storm's arrival, the storm itself, then the return to the calm, just like the whirlwind of emotions and of human sentiments when one is confronted with the heartaches, pains and deceptions of love, but also in front of its hopes, respites and joys."

The various arias show the two ways of using the image of a storm. Io son fra l'onde from Vivaldi's La verità in cimento opens with the phrase: "I am within the waves of an angry sea". This is eloquently depicted by the recorder, which is the only melody instrument in this aria. In Agitata da due venti from his Griselda the protagonist says: "Shaken by two winds, the wave trembles on the troubled sea, and the alarmed steersman suspects an approaching shipwreck". Olimpiade includes the aria Siam navi all'onde algenti: "We are ships left as abandoned among seaweed-clogged waves". It is not surprising that these are all from Vivaldi's pen: his oeuvre includes various concertos which also refer to the sea and the various weather conditions, something he must have been aware of, considering Venice's geographical position. In these arias it is not only the voice which expresses the content of the arias but also the orchestra. That doesn't always fully come out in Les Ambassadeur's playing.

Handel's arias are more about the "meanderings of the interior tempest", as Stefano Russomanno puts it in his liner-notes. Pensieri, voi mi tormentate from Agrippina is about the torments of Agrippina's "cares and concerns". Quando mai spietata sorte is a short aria of Zenobia from Radamisto: "When will, o cruel and unforgiving destiny, my heart ever cease to be in agony". Ombra mai fu from Serse is one of Handel's most famous arias. The connection with the subject of this disc is in the preceding recitative which refers to "thunder claps, lightning flashes and storms". References to the weather can also be found in Porpora's Spesso di nubi cinto from Carlo il Calvo and Torbido in volto from Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria.

As interesting and musically rewarding a disc like this is, it has a serious weakness which it shares with any recital: the lack of context. Those who know the operas from which the arias are taken will have less problems with that but others are left in the dark as to what circumstances inspired the protagonists to sing such arias. The liner-notes don't give the dramatic context either. However, that should withhold nobody from enjoying this disc. The music is excellent and the performances are pretty good. I have much admiration for the way Blandine Staskiewicz deals with the often demanding coloratura. Sometimes she even manages to differentiate between the notes in such an episode, for instance on the word "naufragar" in Agitata da due vente. I had to get used to her vibrato whuch is sometimes too clearly notable. But in the more intimate arias she manages to keep it in check. Quando mai spietata sorte and Brilla nell'alma by Handel receive wonderful performances. Another highlight isSovvente il sole from Vivaldi's Andromeda liberata. The orchestra is good, although - as I indicated - I felt that sometimes more could have been made of the orchestral score.

Considering the numerous opera performances in the 17th and 18th centuries we know only very few of the singers who participated in these performances. Only in a few cases we know enough about a singer to allow performers of our time to devote a disc to his or her repertoire. One of these is the Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, especially because she was the star in several of Handel's operas.

She was born in 1696 in Parma as the daughter of a professional violinist. She was only 18 years of age when she made her first public appearance in an opera performance in her home town. In the following years she performed in many places, such as Bologna, Florence and Mantua and made her debut in Venice in 1718. Here she sang alongside Faustina Bordoni, the mezzo-soprano who later was to become her bitter rival during her years in London. There she arrived in 1722; she made her debut in the King's Theatre in Handel's Ottone. This did not happen without a big fight with the composer as she first refused to sing Falsa imagine. But Handel was not intimidated and drummed it into her that she had to obey his orders. The performance turned out to be a triumph and it resulted in Cuzzoni's participation in twelve further opera performances: Ottone and Flavio (1723), Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano (1724), Rodelinda (1725), Scipione and Alessandro(1726), Admeto and Riccardo Primo (1727), Radamisto (revival), Siroe and Tolomeo (1728). For their disc devoted to Cuzzoni Hasnaa Bennani and Peter Van Heyghen have selected arias from eight of these operas and instrumental pieces from Admeto.

It was in Alessandro that Cuzzoni met Faustina Bordoni again. However, the famous fight on the stage took place during a performance of an opera by Giovanni Bononcini, Astianatte, in June 1727. Even so, they were on the stage together in two further Handel operas in 1728. The fact that Bordoni received a higher wage than she for the performance of Tolomeo made Cuzzoni leave England and return to Italy. She continued to sing in Vienna and several Italian cities. In 1730 she returned to London for performances by the Opera of the Nobility, a rival undertaking to Handel's opera, but after that her star began to decline.

Johann Joachim Quantz had this to say about her singing: "La Cuzzoni had a very pleasant and bright soprano voice, pure intonation and a beautiful trill. The range of her voice extended from middle C to top C. Her style of singing was artless and touching. Because of the dainty, pleasant and fluent way she performed them, her embellishments did not appear artificial; yet so tenderly did she sing them that she captivated all listeners." Unfortunately we will never know exactly how singers of that time performed the arias which their present-day colleagues like to sing. The present disc includes only a small portion of the arias that we know Cuzzoni sang. Rage arias are absent; these probably don't suit Ms Bennani's voice very well. That is at least my impression from her performance of 'Scoglio d'immota fronde' from Scipione, the most dramatic aria in the programme which is a bit too tame and smooth. Ms Bennani is at her best in more intimate pieces, such as 'Ombre, piante, urne funeste' from Rodelinda or 'Torni omai la pace all'alma' from Tolomeo which closes the programme. She impresses with the flexibility of her voice in the virtuosic 'Nò, più soffrir non voglio' from Alessandro.

Hasnaa Bennani has a nice voice with a pleasant and warm sound. I like her stylish ornamentation which is not excessive; she also doesn't fall for the modern habit of rewriting complete lines in the dacapos and extraordinary cadenzas. The only regret is that she uses too much vibrato. However, it didn't bother me here as much as it did in French cantatas on a disc which I reviewed recently. Les Muffatti is an excellent baroque orchestra which gives good support to the singer and adds some nice instrumental movements from various operas. It is a bit odd that the excerpts from the operas are divided over the programme; we constantly move from one opera to the other and back.

Opera lovers will certainly enjoy this disc which gives a glimpse of what cemented the reputation of one of the stars of her days.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Hasnaa Bennani
Les Ambassadeurs
Les Muffatti

CD Reviews