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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Il Pastor Fido (HWV 8a; 1st version, 1712)

Lucy Crowe (Amarilli), Anna Dennis (Mirtillo), Katherine Manley (Eurilla), soprano; Madeleine Shaw (Dorinda), mezzo-soprano; Clint van der Linde (Silvio), alto; Lisandro Abadie (Tirenio), bass
Helen-Jane Howells, soprano; Clint van der Linde, alto; Simon Wall, tenor; Jonathan Sells, bass [cori]
La Nuova Musica
Dir: David Bates

rec: August 2010, London, Temple Church
Harmonia mundi - HMU 907585.86 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.25'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Il Pastor Fido belongs to Handel's least-known operas. It is only the second he composed for England, where he first presented Rinaldo which today is one of his most popular and most frequently performed and recorded. Il Pastor Fido was written in 1712, the year he had settled in England for good. The libretto is based on the famous poem by Battista Guarini (1538-1612) which had inspired so many composers to write madrigals. This poem was adopted to make it suitable for an opera, and in order to make the course of events understandable the textbook of the performances during the 1712-13 season added parts of the poem which had not been composed. The large number of characters was reduced to just six, with Tirenio - the only bass role - appearing at the end of the third act, with one single aria. The orchestra is also rather small, with two recorders, two oboes, strings and bc. Handel is well-known for his many borrowings, from the oeuvre of others as well as from his own, and that isn't any different here. The two works from which he used some music again were both written in Italy: the opera Agrippina and the oratorio La Resurrezione.

Only seven performances of Il Pastor Fido took place; the work failed to make any impression on the English audience. In 1734 Handel returned to this opera. He presented a version which was strongly expanded and reworked, and in this form it was more successful, with 13 performances. This version is available on disc, but - despite the Handel renaissance in the last couple of decades - the original version has never been recorded before. If it comes to a recording after all one hopes that it does full justice to the score. This could have a positive effect on the work's reception and result in live performances and even other recordings. But unfortunately this performance isn't an unqualified success.

The singers have all nice voices which are well suitable for baroque music. They also seem to have dramatic flair to keep an opera production alive. That shines through in this recording now and then. But overall this performance is strangely subdued and restrained. The overture, comprising no less than six movements, is rather slow, with few dynamic shades. It doesn't exactly prepare the audience for a dramatic piece of music. In this respect the performance of the overture is spot-on, because it prepares the listener for a not very dramatic performance. Maybe the restrained approach was inspired by the pastoral character of the story. Even so, there is no lack of strong conflicts, and that doesn't quite come off. The recitatives are generally slowish, and there is very few lively interaction between the characters. Take for instance the beginning of the third act: the hunter Silvio has accidentally hit Dorinda, who is in love with him and whom he has rejected. The dialogue between Silvio and the wounded Dorinda is not more dramatic than a polite and civilized conversation about the weather. The recitatives are also sung with far too little rhythmic freedom, which is a frequently returning problem in recordings of baroque vocal music.

The soloists all sing beautifully; they avoid too much vibrato, and if they use some it is mostly not too obtrusive, with the exception of Katherine Manley here and there. Their interpretation is less convincing, though. That is partly due to the inappropriate performance of the recitatives, but also in the way they ornament their arias. Unfortunately David Bates has allowed - or ordered? - his singers to embrace the modern fashion of largely rewriting lines of their arias in the dacapo sections. The very first aria, 'Fato crudo, Amor severo' (Mirtillo), is an indication of what is to come. It is not as bad in every single aria but too often the singers take too much freedom. If only they had done so in their recitatives ... The ornamentation is often excessive, and can become unnatural, like in 'Sol nel mezzo risuona del core' (Silvio; act 2). Some cadenzas exceed the range of the part, for instance in 'Di goder il bel ch'adoro' (Eurilla; act 1). Moreover, the slow tempi of the overture are also telling in that many arias are slowish as well, like 'Caro Amor, sol per momento' (Mirtillo; act 2). The closing chorus is slow in the extreme; I don't understand this choice of tempo which could be easily twice as fast.

The way the basso continuo is performed is quite problematic too. The harpsichord is often hardly audible and is overshadowed not only by the singer but also by the cello or the bassoon. This is very odd as the harpsichord is supposed to deliver the harmonic support and the string or wind instrument only should support the bass line. What sense does the use of a harpsichord make when you can hardly hear it?

These points of criticism should not suggest there is nothing to enjoy here. There are certainly some good moments. Amarilli's aria 'NÚ! non basta a un infedele' (act 2) is well done from a dramatic point of view, and Dorinda's aria 'Se m'ami, oh caro' (act 3) is quite expressive. Handel is a master in the writing of duets; 'Per te, mio dolce bene' (act 3) is another fine example. It is almost impossible to spoil it, and Anna Dennis and Lucy Crowe give a splendid performance, also thanks to the perfect control of their respective vibrato. But these moments can't really save this recording which is largely a missed opportunity.

The liner-notes by David Vickers are excellent. But that is not reason enough to purchase a disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

La Nuova Musica

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