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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Brilliant Classics

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759) Imeneo - opera in three acts
Imeneo – John Ostendorf (bass-baritone)
Rosmene – Julianne Baird (soprano)
Tirinto – D’Anna Fortunato (mezzo-soprano)
Clomiri – Beverly Hoch (soprano)
Argenio – Jan Opalach (bass)
Brewer Chamber Orchestra and Chorus/Rudolph Palmer
Recorded 1986: Licensed from Vox Classics
Brilliant Handel Edition, Volumes 19 and 20
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99777-19/20 [57.48+54.51]


‘Imeneo’ was Handel’s penultimate opera. Written at about the same time as ‘Saul’ it could not be more different to that muscular work. A slightly artificial pastoral, it needs only small forces and much of it is in the lighter, more melodic vein that Handel employed in many of his later operas (the London Daily Post announced it as an operetta). It ran for a meagre two performances. This was a period when internecine disputes between the two London opera companies had not only weakened the opera companies but had temporarily tired out the appetite of the rather small operatic audience. Though it is not a grand opera, it is by no means a weak work and when Handel presented in Dublin (in concert form as a serenata) it went down a storm.

The plot itself is relatively slight. Rosmene (soprano) is betrothed to Tirinto (mezzo-soprano) but she has been rescued from pirates by the young general Imeneo (baritone). She is loved by Imeneo but reluctant to return his affections, torn between love and duty. Clomiri, her sister (soprano) also secretly loves Tirinto. Rosmene’s father urges her to renounce Tirinto and espouse Imeneo out of gratitude. Her struggle lasts three acts and she finally has to resort to feigning madness before deciding.

It is here that the interesting nature of the plot is revealed. Tirinto is a castrato role and his arias in the first half of the opera lead us to believe that he will ultimately receive Rosmene’s hand. He is after all the hero (castratos always are) and that’s what happens in opera seria. But …

The title role was sung by one William Savage, who five years earlier had been ‘the boy’ who, as a treble, sang the role of Oberto in ‘Alcina’. Perhaps Handel was tempted to defy convention by Savage’s attractive, young stage persona (after all he could have been in his early twenties at most). Or perhaps he just enjoyed confounding the audience’s expectations. After all, when he wanted to he could create wonderful dramatic moments by confounding expectations of what should happen in the formal structure of opera seria. Whatever the reasons, it is Imeneo who gets the girl. So the opera has that very rare thing in baroque opera, a baritone hero. But the final chorus glorifies duty and reason, difficult concepts for modern audiences to accept, accustomed as they are to the romantic view of relationships.

For the performances in Dublin Handel made alterations and adjustments (including transposing parts of the title role for a lower voice). Unfortunately, the edition used for this recording is a little cavalier. Arias are omitted or cut, but worse the title role is given arias which should by rights be sung by other characters. Admittedly, each generation’s Handel performances can seem a little out of date to the next generation. But the cavalier attitude to the text must have seemed a little old fashioned even in 1986. Another area where the recording seems old fashioned is in the use of quite a substantial choir to sing the chorus numbers rather than just an ensemble of the soloists.

But if you simply leave your musicological hat to one side, then this recording is very enjoyable.

In the title role, John Ostendorf sings mellifluously, but Handel has left us something of a puzzle about the tessitura of this role. Some commentators have suggested that the role should be sung by a baritone/tenor but this is a type of voice which barely exists in Handel’s time. The role only really makes sense if you consider the youth of the singer; Savage was presumably barely in his twenties when he sang this role and could easily have had a light and flexible baritone. Unfortunately, John Ostendorf has a bass voice, admittedly a flexible one. He does not quite sound as old as his putative father-in-law, but it is a close-run thing. It is a pity that the work did not have a longer performance history under Handel as it would have been interesting to see how he handled the problem of the title role in the longer term.

D’Anna Fortunato has a lovely firm, warm tone as Tirinto but her passagework has a tendency to be untidy. This is not a major problem and is more than compensated for by her stylish singing in a role which seems to suit her voice very well.

Julianne Baird has a lovely, affecting voice as Rosmene. She is a joy to listen to, a beautifully stylish singer. Rosmene and both suitors come together in a lovely trio, ‘Consolami, bio bene’ at the close of Act 2. At the end of Act 3 Rosmene finally reaches a decision by feigning madness. This allows Handel to revisit the device that he used in ‘Orlando’. Whilst the scene can be seen as Handel parodying the standard operatic device, the wild modulations and snatches of haunting melody reflect the real turbulence in Rosmene’s heart.

Beverly Hoch has a bright, focused voice as Clomiri. Her tone can get a little hard in the higher lying passages and this is emphasised by her unfortunate tendency to include over elaborate ornamentation with some spectacularly unsuitable high notes. As her father Argenio, Jan Opalach has a fine dark focused voice and a good technique.

What ‘Imeneo’ needs is a good modern recording using a decent edition based on the first performances with a more suitable singer in the title role. Until this happens (and after all we have a new recording of ‘Deidamia’ to look forward do) we can simply enjoy this recording.

Robert Hugill


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