Véronique Gens's intense soprano shines in this program of tragic cantatas about a trio of fatally wronged Roman heroines written by the twentysomething Handel during his triumphant Italian sojourn. Here, luckless Lucrezia and abandoned Armida vacillate between love and hate for the men who wronged them and agitated Agrippina rages against the son who condemned her to death, the Emperor Nero. Gens is with these wracked souls all the way, bending her lovely voice to capture the verbal nuances of the texts; listen, for example, how she deadens her tone for Agrippina's "A me sol giunga la morte." Throughout, she stays within the stylistic frame of historically informed performance practices, as do her excellent accompanists. Thanks to Ms. Gens, it's a pleasure to spend 52 minutes with such tortured protaganists. –Dan Davis
On February 24 1711, the curtain at the Haymarket theater went up for 'Rinaldo,' the first opera George Frideric Handel produced for London. It had a libretto by Giacomo Rossi, based on a somewhat mangled outline of Tasso's epic poem of the Crusades, 'Gerusalemme Liberata,' which had been prepared by impresario Aaron Hill with the aim of allowing for as many special machinery effects as possible. Handel clearly wanted to impress London, for his sparkling music contained liberal borrowings from some of his best recent scores. While many changes and cuts were made up to the time of Handel1s final revision in 1731, this recording attempts as much as possible to return to the version that would have been heard in the first London production. Though there are no featured castrati, the cast is strong and youthfully vigorous, with David Daniels in the title role and the radiant Cecilia Bartoli as his betrothed, Almirena. Christopher Hogwood leads an altogether bracing performance, drawing beautifully atmospheric sounds from the Academy of Ancient Music.
George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), one of the preeminent Baroque composers, was born in Germany, educated in Italy, and spent most of his career in England, making him one of the first genuinely cosmopolitan composers noted, for the elegance, sophistication, and tunefulness of his music. He established his reputation in London as a composer of Italian opera, but after public taste shifted in the 1730s, he turned to English oratorios, the most famous of which is Messiah. Other popular works include Water Music, Royal Fireworks Music, the operas Giulio Cesare and Serse, and the oratorios Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabeus.
Equally known for his live performances and musicological work in establishing new performing practices for early opera, Alan Curtis enjoyed a fruitful career. A scholar, as well as a conductor and harpsichordist, Curtis edited several important works with an appreciation for authenticity, effective performance, and – in the case of opera – stage-worthiness. Several of his best recordings were issued in the 1990s and in the new millennium. Curtis studied first at Michigan State University and attained his bachelor's degree there in 1955.
This set contains 8 operas by Handel in 22 CDs. In many ways, this box is a mix-bag: some of them performed in the "traditional style" with severe cuts, and others in "historically-informed" performances. Selection includes some of the most popular Handel operas and some of the rarely-performed. It's the latter category that one should pay closer attention.
Skin-tight rubber and lacrosse sticks bring contemporary chic to this timeless fantasy of warriors and witches in Robert Carsen's fun-filled transformation of Handel's first London triumph. Conducting from the keyboard just as Handel himself did, Ottavio Dantone leads a youthful cast of today's luminaries in the dramatic art of Baroque opera, the 'affecting' Sonia Prina, the 'unadorned intensity' of Anett Fritsch and 'fire-breathing flair' (The Observer) of Brenda Rae.
Rinaldo’s libretto, based on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, relates the siege of Jerusalem, during the first Crusade, by the Christian army lead by Godefroy de Bouillon. In this production, Goffredo is a preacher – nice suit and white teeth – who seems to be in conflict with the vamp Armida and her night club called “Gerusalemme”. Argante is the Saracen bouncer of the night club and particularly resistant to Goffredo’s speech. Almirena, Goffredo’s daughter, is a good looking maid who appears looking like a sort of Jeanne d’Arc but rapidly changes into a pom-pom girl. She is lusted after by Armida for her night club and is used by her father to manipulate or at least to motivate Rinaldo – an Eliott Ness or Dick Tracy like hero. Note that Almirena’s capture, which precedes and triggers Rinaldo’s famous lament “Cara sposa”, looks like a tribute to Hitchcock’s Birds.