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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Opera arias

[I] "Handel Arias"
Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano
The English Concert
Dir: Harry Bicket
rec: June 6 - 9, 2012 & Sept 6 - 7, 2013, London, All Hallows, Gospel Oak
Hyperion - CDA67979 (© 2014) 68'31")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: E

Alcina (HWV 34) (Mi lusinga il dolce affetto; Verdi prati; Stà nell'Ircana); Ariodante (HWV 33) (Con l'ali di costanza; Scherza infida!; Dopo notte); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (Cara speme, questo core); Hercules (HWV 60) (There in myrtle shades reclined; Cease, ruler of the day, to rise; Where shall I fly?); Radamisto (HWV 12a) (Quando mai, spietata sorte)

[II] "Heroes from the Shadows"
Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto; Philippe Jaroussky, altoa
Orfeo 55
Dir: Nathalie Stutzmann
rec: May 19 - 23, 2014, Paris, Eglise du Bon Secours
Erato - 462317 7 (© 2013) (54'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Agrippina (HWV 6) (Voi che udite il mio lamento); Alessandro (HWV 21) (Saṛ qual vento); Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11) (Pena tiranna; Ballo di pastori e pastorelle); Arianna in Creta (HWV 32) (Son qual stanco pellegrino); Ariodante (HWV 33) (Dover, giustizia, amor); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (Son nata a lagrimar, dueta; L'aure che spira); Orlando (HWV 31) (sinfonia [3,1]); Partenope (HWV 27) (Io seguo sol fiero; sinfonia [3,1]); Poro (HWV 28) (sinfonia [3,1]); Radamisto (HWV 12) (Son contenta di morire); Rodelinda (HWV 19) (Se fiera belva ha cinto); Scipione (HWV 20) (sinfonia [3,5]); Serse (HWV 40) (Non so se sia le speme; sinfonia [3,1]); Silla (HWV 10) (Senti, bell'idol mio); Tamerlano (HWV 18) (Par che mi nasca in seno)

Recording a programme with arias from large-scale works is quite popular. Many singers, especially those who regularly participate in opera performances, like to record some of their favourite arias. The regular readers of this site will know that I am rather sceptical about such productions. True, in the baroque era arias were sometimes moved from one character to another in an opera, or even from one opera to another. Moreover, most aria texts don't include very specific references to situations or characters in the opera. Even so, they only receive their real meaning when they are performed within their dramatic context. The authors of liner-notes may go at length to explain that context, it cannot compensate for the lack of the complete story of the opera which will only be familiar to die-hard opera lovers.

Aria discs can be interesting when they bring little-known operas to our attention. From that perspective the disc by Nathalie Stutzmann is the more interesting of these two. Handel may be one of the most popular opera composers of the baroque era and his operas may be regularly performed in the opera theatres of our time, a part of his output in this genre is still largely unknown. That is the case, for instance, with Arianna in Creta and Silla, but operas such as Poro, Scipione and Amadigi di Gaula are not exactly part of the standard repertoire either. In contrast Alice Coote confines herself to arias from some of the best-known operas. She also includes arias from a secular oratorio, Theodora, not one of Handel's most frequently-performed works, but certainly not an unknown quantity.

Her performances are also not very captivating, I'm afraid. I don't find Ms Coote's voice very interesting, but that is entirely a matter of taste. There is certainly some variety within the programme, due to the different characters and the different situations they reflect upon. From an interpretational angle that is not a virtue, though. The more lyrical arias and those which express feelings of sadness come off best, but the heroic pieces are much less convincing. That is partly due to the dark colours of Ms Coote's voice and the fact that her voice doesn't seem very powerful. From a technical point of view it is regrettable that the trills are not perfect. Despite the difference in character between the arias the programme is less interesting than one would expect, and that is partly due to the lack of differentiation in the choice of tempi. These are mostly rather slow. 'Scherza infida' from Ariodante takes almost 12 minutes, longer than any performance I know. Sometimes the music seems to come to a standstill. That can have a certain logic within the dramatic context, but that is what we miss here. This is exactly the reason that many aria recordings leave me unsatisfied. The playing of the English Concert doesn't help to make this disc more interesting. On the contrary, it is rather bland and not very theatrical.

About the recital by Nathalie Stutzmann I am a little in two minds. Like in the case of Alice Coote I find the heroic arias not that convincing. Ms Stutzmann's voice is also dark coloured, but more powerful than Alice Coote's. However, I miss some sharp edges, and that is the main reason such arias don't come off to maximum effect. Ms Stutzmann also uses quite a lot of vibrato, and I don't like that. There are some moments when she does without, so why does she use it elsewhere?

That said, there is also quite a lot which speaks for this disc. Nathalie Stutzmann delivers very differentiated interpretations, and she grabs the character of each aria perfectly. If there is a way to portray a character out of its dramatic context, this is the way to do it. She is given excellent support by the orchestra which she herself directs. 'Pena tiranna' from Amadigi di Gaula, 'Non so se sia la speme' from Serse and 'Son qual stanco pellegrino' from Arianna in Creta are brilliantly sung and models of expression. The duet 'Son nata a lagrimar' from Giulio Cesare is another highlight. The contrast between Ms Stutzmann's dark voice in the role of Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky's lighter voice as her son Sesto is spot-on. In most cases I appreciate the ornamentation which is not excessive, and Ms Stutzmann mostly resists the temptation to rewrite complete lines in the dacapos. However, some cadenzas seem to me to cross the line as they far extend the tessitura of the respective arias.

There are a couple of issues which I did not like. One of them is the fact that the orchestra's playing is sometimes not very subtle, especially in some sinfonias from various operas. I hasten to add that I prefer this to the bland playing of the English Concert. Here and there we hear an organ, especially in 'Son contenta di morire' from Radamisto and I find that rather odd. That aria closes with a crescendo of the orchestra, and that is just as odd. 'Io seguo sol fiero' from Partenope ends with a cadenza which is a dialogue between the voice and the horn. Here Stutzmann doesn't sing but imitates the horn with a kind of humming. Calling that odd is an understatement. That is probably something to do in an encore - a piece which cannot be taken fully seriously.

Everything said and done my appreciation for the beautiful things this disc has to offer prevails. Nathalie Stutzmann eloquently demonstrates the expressive qualities of Handel's arias.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Nathalie Stutzmann
The English Concert
Orfeo 55

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