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George Frederick HANDEL Handel at the Opera overtures, arias and ballet music   Collegium Musicum 90 conducted by Simon Standage   Chandos Chaconne CHAN 06550 [66:37]

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This is an unusual opera anthology, in that although it contains five arias there is no whisper of the human voice. In total the disc features music from seven of Handel's operas, offering besides the arias an equal number of overtures, the remainder being comprised of ballet selections. It may be unusual, but given the frequency with which we are offered collections of vocal excerpts, why not an instrumental programme?

Handel at the Opera opens with 21 minutes of music from Alicina HWV34, by far the most fully represented work. Handel completed Alicina on the 8th of April 1735, by which time he had been writing opera for the London stage for a quarter of a century. The first performance was given at Covent Garden just 8 days later, and to where Handel had recently relocated following the loss to his company of the King's Theatre. Covent Garden may have been less prestigious and smaller, but it did offer one distinct advantage, a troupe of French ballet dancers in the employ John Rich, the theatre manager. Therefore, as he had occasionally in the past, Handel began to incorporate dance sequences into his operas. Thus, apart from the overture, we are given eight brief dances pieces from Alicina, and one aria.

Such was the thirst for Handel's music that instrumental arrangements were made by various musicians for performance both public and private. Finally the inevitable happened, the arrangements became so successful that they made their way back into the opera-house, where they were used as interlude music between scenes. It is of course performances of these arrangements which appear on this instrumental collection.

Armino HWV36 dates from the following year and is here represented by the overture and a brief minuet, while Serse HWV40, composed in the winter of 1737-8, inevitably provides, by 'Ombra mai fu', originally an aria for the castrato Caffarelli, now forever immortalised as 'Handel's Largo'. There is an aria from Handel's, first London opera, Rinaldo HWV7 and rather more extended sequences of music from BerniceHWV38, Rodelinda HWV19 and Ariodante HWV33.

Simon Standage, a founder member of the English Concert and Professor of Baroque Violin at both the Royal Academy of Music and the Dresdner Akademie fur Alte Musik, and Collegium Musicum 90 are together on familiar ground, having already recorded three volumes of the Handel Concerti Grossi for Chandos, together with Apollo e Dafne and Crudel tiranno Amor. Performing with calm confidence on authentic instruments or modern replicas they achieve a very natural and well-balanced sound. The music is of course rather more relaxed than Handel's famous instrumental show-pieces, the Water and Fireworks music, yet holds much that should captivate both the general listener and the devotee of the composer's music - I am always loath to use the term Handelian, the implicit idol worship doing neither party justice. Likewise, if the Concerti Grossi appeal, so should the music here.

On caveat: Handel at the Opera is perhaps a disc to be played in small doses rather than taken all at once. This music was meant to be part of a greater event, and it may offer its best rewards as one element in of an evening's listening. Beguiling and pleasurable, most definitely yes, a treat to have in the collection when something a little different is in order, yet probably not an album to play all the way through and lend one's fullest attention. Nevertheless, a most warmly recommended release.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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