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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Fernando, Re di Castiglia (1732) [149.19]
Fernando – Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)
Elvida – Veronica Cangemi (soprano)
Dionisio – Filippo Adami(tenor)
Isabella – Marianne Pizzolato (mezzo)
Alfonso – Neal Banerjee (counter-tenor)
Sancio – Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor)
Altomaro – Antonio Abete (bass)
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. 20-28 April 2005, Tonhalle, St. Gallen, Switzerland
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3654832 [71.53 + 77.26]

Handel's Fernando, Re di Castiglia is not a familiar name in the Handel canon. Essentially it is the opera Sosarme, Re di Medea with the location and character names altered, 130 extra bars of recitative, and the plotline otherwise completely unchanged.
For his 1731-32 opera season at the King’s Theatre Handel wrote two new operas, Ezio - setting a libretto by Metastasio - and a new opera based on Salvi’s libretto for Dionisio, Re di Portogallo. The company for which Handel wrote these had undergone something of a change; his prime castrato, Senesino, remained as did his prima donna, Strada, and the contralto Merighi. Others had left and were replaced by a group of singers new to the London stage. This group included Pinnacci, one of the finest tenors to work for Handel, and the great bass, Montagnana.
Metastasio’s libretto for Ezio had a considerable amount of recitative. Though Handel made substantial cuts, the opera was not popular and ran for only five performances. At the time of Ezio’s failure, Handel was two-thirds of the way through his opera based on Salvi’s Dionisio, Re di Portogallo; That opera was to be called Fernando, Re di Castiglia. As a reaction to Ezio’s failure, Handel cut the recitative of the new opera even further, renamed it Sosarme, Re di Medea, and renamed most of the characters.
The decision to cut the recitative even further is understandable. London audiences could be famously intolerant of long stretches of recitative. When transforming Fernando into Sosarme, Handel removed a further 134 bars of recitative, the majority from Act 1. As to why the opera was renamed and relocated, Winton Dean has speculated that someone must have warned Handel that an opera which portrayed Portugal in an unfavourable light would not sit well with King George as Portugal was Britain’s oldest ally.
The renaming and relocating of the opera had virtually no effect on the plot, but the removal of the recitative left some of the more complex plotting rather obscured. Handel completed Act 3 of the opera as Sosarme.
The opera is musically strong and Alan Curtis has taken the decision to restore as much as possible of the original recitative. Playing it in its original location with the original character names has no effect on the drama, but helps to differentiate between the two versions.
The main problem with this restoration is that Curtis has been able to restore 100 bars to Act 1 and 34 to Act 2, but nothing to Act 3 as Handel set this after his final set of cuts to the recitative. This means that the opera, as performed by Curtis, is possibly a little unbalanced as compared to what Handel was intending, before the failure of Ezio, with Act 1 in particular being too long for the rest of the opera. But his restoration does give us a glimpse of the fuller opera which Handel was contemplating, with more detail to the complex plotting. Also, Handel’s final revisions were inevitably very rushed and some details, such as the fuller version of Alfonso’s accompanied recitative in Act 1, are better in the original version.
The plot, such as it is, is the sort of complex dynastic quarrel beloved of opera seria writers. Such plots enabled the librettist to put his characters into a series of strong situations; it is these situations that matter and neither librettist, nor composer, seemed to worry if the way the characters got there was a little contrived.
Dionisio, King of Portugal is struggling with a rebellion by his eldest son, Alfonso, with Dionisio besieging the city of Coimbra which is held by the rebels. Alfonso is jealous of Dionisio’s natural son, Sancio, but this jealousy has been fanned by the evil machinations of Dionisio’s counsellor, Altomaro. Dionisio’s daughter, Elvida, is betrothed to Fernando, King of Castile, but the two are prevented from meeting by the struggle. Elvida and her mother, Isabella, are held inside the Royal palace in Coimbra. Eventually Alfonso and Dionisio resolve to meet in single combat, but this is foiled by Fernando and all ends satisfactorily.
Sosarme has not been that strongly served on disc and Alan Curtis’s new recording would have been welcome, no matter what version he used. With the expansion of the recitative in the new version, it is heartening to report that the cast on this new version delivers the recitative in a highly dramatic and involving manner. For anyone following the plot in detail, we get a vividly portrayed drama played out before us. Even if you don’t follow all the libretto, then the results are highly involving.
When it comes to the detail of individual vocal performances, Curtis’s cast are a little more variable. Though overall the results are creditable, regrettably these forces are not out of the topmost drawer among those casts with whom Curtis has worked.
In the Senesino role of Fernando, Lawrence Zazzo - rapidly becoming the Handel counter-tenor de nos jours - is suitably dramatic. His more martial passage-work is apt to turn into bluster but in the more lyric passages, Zazzo spins a lovely line. He and Elvida (Veronica Cangemi) share two lovely duets. The opera is notable for having three duets. Zazzo can be quite generous with his use of vibrato but it is never overpowering and he retains a good sense of line.
Cangemi is also adept at spinning long lines and floating some wonderful high notes. There are moments when her passage-work sounds smudged and in her final aria there are hints of her top being squeezed. Cangemi also gets a strong accompagnato at the beginning of Act 2 when her lovely long soprano line is supported by a jagged string accompaniment.
Neither Cangemi nor Zazzo are perfect but at their best, both are fine talents displayed in a suitably dramatic manner.
Two more of the cast almost equal Zazzo and Cangemi. As Altomaro, Antonio Abete, displays a fine, focused baritone voice, which is attractively grainy and suitably expressive. All he really lacks are the resonant low notes required of him in his opening aria. Montagnana, the original Altomaro had a very wide range. Marianna Pizzolato is a trifle more variable as Isabella (Elvida’s mother and Dionisio’s wife). At her best she is a fine dramatic singer, with some good focused tone, fine line and crisp passage-work, but she does not always manage to stick to this high standard. She and Alfonso (Neal Banerjee) share a duet at the opening of Act 2 which is one of Handel’s rarer duets of opposition, with the two singers portraying complementary points of view.
Neither tenor is really in the same class. Filippo Adami, as Dionisio, has a regrettably dry-sounding voice with a less than ideal grainy tone. Technically he is perfectly OK, but fails to ignite dramatically; he just does not bring one Handel’s more challenging tenor parts to life. Neal Banerjee as Alfonso is inclined to bluster and fails to provide a good feel for the musical line.
As Sancio, Max Emanuel Cencic has a markedly feminine tone with a tight vibrato; he is undoubtedly a strongly dramatic singer though his passage-work is not ideal.
Curtis and his group, Il Complesso Barocco, give their usual admirable support. In addition to the overture, the group also get a brief spotlight in the Act 2 military sinfonia and the sinfonia which opens Act 3. The groups also contributes a fine violin solo in Isabella’s final aria.
Alan Curtis and his cast give a strong, creditable performance that falls down mainly on detail. A couple of cast changes to strengthen the cast would have turned this from a recommendable, but not ideal performance, into one that would have been a serious contender.
If you are looking for a disc of perfect Handel singing, then look elsewhere, but if you want a highly dramatic presentation of one of Handel’s more underrated operas then look no further.
Robert Hugill


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