speaking, when Handel revised operas it was usually for the
worse; such revisions being reactions to changes in cast or
circumstances. This means that the catalogue of Handel’s Italian
operas is not a happy hunting ground for groups who wish to
explore variants and original versions. But in some cases,
there are interesting variants to explore. Alan Curtis and his
group Il Complesso Barocco seem to be doing just that. Not only
have they just recorded Fernando, Re di Castiglia (a
reconstruction of the original version of Sosarme) but
we have this recording of Floridante which attempts to
return the opera to something like Handel’s intended form.
Floridante was written for the 1721 season of the Royal Academy
of Music. This was not an entirely happy period for Handel as
he was in competition with Bononcini, whose shorter, lighter
style of aria was popular with the public. But Handel would
recover; 1723 saw the composition of Giulio Cesare and
1724 that of Tamerlano.
Floridante however was hampered even before it premiered. The opera’s
leading lady was intended to be Margherita Durastantini, a singer
with whom Handel had had strong associations since his period
in Italy in 1708. But in October 1720, whilst Handel was in
the process of composing the opera, she fell ill and could not
be guaranteed to come to London the next spring.
of replacing Durastantini with another soprano, the directors
of the Royal Academy decided to promote the seconda donna, contralto
Anastasia Robinson. Her intended role of Rossane was then given
to the Italian soprano Maddalena Salvai.
solution to this problem was to re-write two of Rossane’s arias
and entirely replace a third, so that they suited Salvai. This
substitution replaced a simple, emotionally charged aria, of
a type at which Robinson excelled, with something rather more
flirtatious and suitable for Salvai.
voice was not only lower than Durastantini’s but of more limited
compass. More problematically she was less agile and less secure
in pitch. Where Durastantini could be relied upon to rise to
the full heights of Handelian bravura, Robinson excelled at
the slower, simpler, more emotional pieces. In fact, the sort
of pieces that Bononcini was writing for her in his operas.
But Handel’s conception of the proud Elmira required her to
perform a number of arias which showed off his characteristic
fire and thunder, so Handel ignored Robinson’s strengths and
weaknesses and simply transposed the arias and adjusted, where
necessary, their great range. This, perhaps, contributed to
the works relative lack of success.
reviving the opera, Handel never returned to his original conception.
So, Alan Curtis here presents a version of the opera with the
role of Elmira returned to its original soprano pitch, but with
Rossane left in its revised, apparently superior, soprano form.
This means that Elmira’s arias in the second half of the opera
(latter half of Act 2 and all of Act 3) have had to be transposed
up, into the soprano range. The result is an interesting experiment.
was never a high soprano and as she got older her voice lowered.
At the premiere of Giulio Cesare in 1723 she sang the
role of Sesto. So Curtis has taken the interesting decision
to cast mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the soprano role of
Elmira. But DiDonato has a high, bright mezzo-voice and sounds
convincingly soprano-ish. Also, DiDonato is a superb musician
and would be worth hearing whatever she sang. DiDonato is one
of the brightest points in a very strong cast. Her delivery
of Elmira’s arias is vivid and powerful, but she can also be
simply and profoundly moving as in the beautiful duet with Floridante
which closes Act 1.
her betrothed, Floridante, we have Marijana Mijanovic who is
becoming something of a specialist in Handel trouser roles.
Here she sings with a warm tone and is convincingly heroic where
necessary. I must confess that there were occasions when I found
her tone uneven when singing in the lower register. There were
moments when I wondered whether the role was too low for her.
But you must balance this with the fact that we hear her lovely
delivery in Floridante’s more moving numbers.
and Floridante are the heroic couple and they are contrasted
with Rossane and Timiate, who form a lighter, more flirtatious
couple. It is for Rossane and Timiate that Handel wrote his
shorter song-like and dance-like arias. Sharon Rostorf-Zamir
as Rossane and Roberta Invernizzi as Timante make a well-balanced
couple and they do not disappoint when compared to DiDonato
and Mijanovic. Rossane and Timiate also get a duet in Act 2
which Rostorf-Zamir and Invernizzi deliver in beautifully.
Priante plays Oronte; this is the bass role, which means of
course that Oronte must be a father and a king. Priante has
a lovely grainy baritone voice and a delivery that made me wish
that Handel had written more for him. He makes a very strong
impression in his dramatic final aria.
Coralbo, Riccardo Novaro - also a bass - gets a single aria
which he delivers admirably.
recording is possessed of a strong, well-balanced cast all of
whom are singing in fine form. The performance is overall far
stronger than Curtis’s other recent offering, Fernando.
Curtis and his group Il Complesso Barocco are on good form,
accompanying the singers in a lively, virtuoso fashion.
is of course, one thing that I have not mentioned – the plot.
This is the usual complex mess of sex, violence, lust, betrayal,
incest, jealousy, attempted poisoning and attempted suicide.
We must try and appreciate it for the strong situations into
which it projects the characters rather than looking for any
subtleties of plot.
For anyone wanting
a fresh look at one of Handel’s stronger mid-period operas then
you need look no further. Whilst neither the opera nor the recording
are in the top flight, both have very much to recommend them.