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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Fernando, Re di Castiglia opera in three acts (1732)  [149:19]
Fernando: Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)
Elvida: Veronica Cangemi (soprano)
Isabella: Marianna Pizzolato (soprano)
Altomaro: Antonio Abete (bass)
Sancio: Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor)
Dionisio: Filippo Adami (counter-tenor)
Alfonso: Neal Banerjee (tenor)
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. Tonhalle, St Gallen, Switzerland, 20–28 April 2005
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0946 3 65483 2 6 [71:53 + 77:26] 

 


If you experienced a double-take on reading the title of this review you can be forgiven. Fernando … by Handel? You don’t recall an opera of that name by the great German-cum-adopted British composer? Well it’s not surprising since the piece, as such, never appeared on stage.

Handel was far advanced with the score, indeed had completed the first two acts, when he suddenly decided to change its location, its characters’ names and its overall title, before completing the work as “Sosarme, Re di Media”. He then went back, completing the transformation, by revising aspects of acts one and two, including the trimming and alteration of some recitatives. Why, one might well ask? Well it seems no-one is absolutely sure of the answer. The likeliest explanation has come from the great Handel scholar Winton Dean. It seems the change may have been politically motivated. King John V of Portugal was the richest ruler in Europe at the time, thanks to the mineral wealth of Brazil. They were also Britain’s oldest allies. A libretto which presented the Portuguese royal family in such an unflattering light - internecine warfare, internal jealousies - would probably have caused apprehension at best in George II’s court … possibly worse. Not being especially “political”, Handel’s attention was drawn to the potential embarrassment late-on in the proceedings, hence the apparently hasty changes.

That said, this explanation isn’t entirely convincing. After all, the libretto still seems risky …. Fernando or Sosarme the plot still revolves around a dispute between a King and his heir … and relations between George and Prince Frederick were hardly rosy! Moreover offending anyone was hardly a key objective for Handel at the time, since he was particularly anxious for a success. He had presented two operas during the 1731-2 season and the other, “Ezio”, had proved to be an expensive disaster, appearing only five times before being withdrawn.

Whatever the reason for the morphing of “Fernando” into “Sosarme” the result was a great hit. The anonymous writer of a contemporary pamphlet - actually commenting on the oratorio “Esther” - describes the opera as “most pleasing”, and goes on to say: “I am sorry I am so wicked but I like one good opera better than twenty oratorios….”.

In short, Alan Curtis and his forces appear to present us with an act of true historical reconstruction; an opera that never happened. But are the results just some dry, academic exercise unworthy of our attention? Far from it.

Most of the score will obviously be familiar from “Sosarme” anyway, which despite being part of the acknowledged Handelian canon, has hardly been overwhelmingly represented on disc. What’s more it is a delightful score and it is fortunate here in being both sensitively and expressively performed.

Act I opens with a belligerent “follow me to war aria” from Alfonso, the son of King Dionisio and Queen Isabella. The reason for Alfonso’s anger is that he is likely to be usurped by Sancio, Dionisio’s other son - although not a child of the Queen - who, whilst reluctant to replace Alfonso, has both his father’s support and that of the evil Altomaro, a royal councillor.

After this upbeat beginning the royal princess Elvida appears, ravishingly sung by Veronica Cangemi, to perform the aria “Rendi l’sereno al ciglio” (“Sereneness to your eyes restore”), which she does quite beautifully. I had not come across this singer previously … but I will certainly be looking out for more of her work. The middle and bottom of her voice remind me somewhat of Cecilia Bartoli, but she has a creamy top range which makes set pieces such as this a real joy to listen to. In fact I’m not sure she doesn’t steal the show altogether, since she manages faster music equally well, exhibiting great care over note values and divisions.

We then hear from the evil Altomaro, originally a role designated for the great bass Montagnana, and here sung with relish by Antonio Abate. Later he is particularly effective in the act two aria “Sento il cor che lieto gode” (I feel my heart exulting bound … that such a happy fraud I’ve found”), exuding just the right amount of oily satisfaction. Once again the copious divisions are easily encompassed without distracting over-emphasis.

Max Emanuel Cencic meanwhile contributes a mellifluous counter-tenor as the righteous Sancio, a character which he avoids making unduly sanctimonious. This he achieves in large part because of the light and justly-paced accompaniment of the conductor, with tempos avoiding the charge of being unduly stodgy …. a tribute to Curtis and his instrumentalists.

Fernando our eponymous hero meanwhile is betrothed to Elvida, and is clearly unhappy at the strife within his future family. This is also a character which could easily slip into a two-dimensional protagonist, a sort of moralistic “goody-two-shoes”, but is prevented from doing so here by the artistry of Lawrence Zazzo who sings with great feeling. Not content to merely “prettify” the music, he manages to avoid making the Prince a cardboard cut-out.

By the time we reach the third Act Fernando is attempting to resolve the strife by means of diplomacy. Although he’s unaware of it, he in fact has the goodwill of most of the parties, but is thwarted in his efforts by the double-dealing of Altomaro. The latter manages through deliberate misinformation to engineer a single combat between Alfonso and Dionisio as an attempt to settle the argument once and for all.

As the fighting begins Isabella and Sancio intervene but are wounded. At this the King and his son throw down their weapons and Altomaro steals away from the scene. He is later found to have committed suicide, as all the parties joyously disentangle his web of deceit and are ultimately reconciled.

Whilst this may not be Metastasio’s greatest plot, “Fernando/Sosarme” does present a cogent and consistent narrative, hanging together much better - and being a good deal less absurd - than many of its stage contemporaries. As I hope I’ve indicated the dramatic thrust is well maintained by Curtis and his singers, who avoid a descent into caricature. Moreover they are pleasingly recorded in the grateful acoustics of St Gallen’s Tonhalle.

An interesting essay “The First Sosarme” by David Vickers graces the booklet, along with the Italian libretto and translation ….  into English only … a slight oddity since Vickers’ work is translated into French and German also.

Although the likes of Alcina, Ariodante, Giulio Cesare, or Rinaldo might feature more highly on the Handelian “hit-list”, it has been a great pleasure to acquaint or re-acquaint myself with this, possibly the most “schizophrenic” of the master’s operas.

Ian Bailey

 

 

 


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