Christoph Willibald Gluck has a place in the history books for a few big hits and for the idea of reforming the ornate style of opera seria serious opera in the 18th century, replacing it with a more natural ideal of melody. This reputation has rested on a very few pieces, and both bibliographic control and recorded explorations of Gluck's music are perhaps more sparse than for any other major composer.
These are world premiere recordings and these Handel specialists have once again scored a major coup. Alessandro Severo is based on the life of a Roman emperor of the third century and is in the form of a pasticcio. Manzaro composed the Greek national anthem and the discovery of an opera by him was a major find by the Greek conductor George Petrou. Armonia Atenia perform on period instruments.
Handels ninth major opera for London, Alessandro was written as a showcase for the Rival Queens, the two famous Italian sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni whose supposed enmity, both personal and professional, not only generated good publicity for Handels latest opera but also added extra dramatic frisson to the two divas jealous clashes on stage.
Hasse was a major 18th century composer, up there with Handel. He was married to the even more famous soprano, Faustina Bordoni; they were what is now called a “power couple”. Based in Dresden and bathed in the Italian style of composition, Hasse turned that city into a major venue for opera; the Italians called him “The dear Saxon”. Siroe is a typical opera of the period: with a libretto by Pietro Metastasio (whose words for various operas were set by more than 300 composers; Siroe alone was set by five composers before Hasse got to it), it alternates recitatives (many, many of them), in which things happen and characters confront one-another, with showcase arias that reflect a frozen moment, a specific emotion.
Countertenor performances of 19th century opera are a historical and, ultimately, true novelty. This said, for those who love the sound of the countertenor voice and want to give it a try, there are several factors that recommend this release by countertenor Franco Fagioli, with the small orchestra Armonia Atenea under George Petrou. First is that castrati were still around in Rossini's time, although on the decline, and the composer was reportedly intrigued by their voices. Second, Fagioli, unlike the vast majority of other countertenors, studied bel canto singing rather than Baroque repertory exclusively, and a certain distance present in the work of other countertenors is absent here. And third, and most important, is Fagioli's voice itself. Of the countertenors active today, he's the one with the range, the power, the attitude to make you suspend disbelief and think for a moment that you're actually listening to a castrato. He enters into the various Rossini roles represented on this recording, several of which were mezzo-soprano "pants" roles; this adds to the layers of identity-switching happening, and the parts hit Fagioli's vocal sweet spot. A bonus is that several of these are from Rossini opere serie that are little played or recorded.