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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759) – Lotario
Adelaide – Simone Kermes (soprano)
Lotario – Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Berengario – Steve Davislim (tenor)
Idelberto – Hilary Summers (contralto)
Matilde – Sonia Prina (contralto)
Clodomiro – Vito Priante (bass)
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
Recorded June 22-28, 2004, Chiesa dell’Annunziata, Ravello, Salerno, Italy
DEUTSCHES HARMONIA MUNDI 82876 58797 2 [79.30 + 77.18]


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‘Lotario’ was Handel’s opera designed to show of his new set of singers with the reformed Royal Academy (the so-called "Second Academy") in December 1729. He had spent the summer on the continent recruiting new singers. It was not a great success and was not revived again until the 1950s (when it was again received without enthusiasm). So we must welcome this wonderful new recording from Alan Curtis, which enables us to appreciate the music - and there is much good music here - without getting too hung up on the limitations of the libretto. On disc, and with a performance as strong as this, any dramatic problems matter less.

For a Handel opera, ‘Lotario’ is short; mainly because Handel set a highly compressed libretto – so compressed that the action can seem a little puzzling. And the plot is opera seria at its most different; the characters undergo virtually no development. Instead it is a ‘closed box’ scenario, where the personalities of a group of people are gradually revealed through a series of interactions. The essential nature of the baroque aria (its presentation of two contrasting affekts rather than a linear character development) lent itself to this form of opera. In ‘Lotario’ the libretto presented Handel with a series of strong characters in strong situations.

When recruiting in Italy, Handel failed to engage the famous castrato Farinelli, so that his company consisted of a soprano leading lady (Anna Strada del Po, who would go on to create the title role in ‘Alcina’), an alto castrato (Bernacchi), two contraltos and a tenor. His second contralto, Antonia Merighi, generally performed male roles because of the low tessitura of her voice, but Handel had already engaged contralto Francesca Bertolli who specialised in male roles. So in ‘Lotario’, Merighi sang the role of the evil Matilde. Merighi was a fine singing actress, so Handel created a highly dramatic role which was equal to her talents.

The plot, such as it is, is as follows. The King of Italy has recently died. The evil Berengario, Duke of Spoleto (Steve Davislim, tenor), who in fact has murdered the King, and his equally malevolent wife Matilde (Sonia Prina, contralto) are attempting to pressure the late King’s widow Adelaide (Simone Kermes, soprano) to marry their son Idelberto (Hilary Summers, contralto). In fact Idelberto does love Adelaide, but Adelaide steadfastly refuses to marry him. Things are complicated by the arrival of Lotario, King of Germany (Sara Mingardo, contralto) who loves Adelaide and wants to save her from her enemies. By the end of the opera Matilde and Berengario are defeated, Idelberto is given their throne and Adelaide and Lotario declare their love in a lovely duettino where Kermes and Mingardo’s voices combine and contrast beautifully.

As can be seen from the voice types, Alan Curtis has managed to cast this opera with a remarkable trio of fine contralto voices. Each one, Sonia Prina, Hilary Summers, Sara Mingardo, has the sort of lovely, dark chocolate voice which is encountered all too rare nowadays. The result, with just a lone soprano, is to give the opera a remarkable, but not unattractive dark tint. All three are good Handel stylists and are a pleasure to listen to; just occasionally I wished that there was a little more difference between their voices, though each one does have a distinctive timbre. The timbre Sonia Prina’s voice has echoes of that of Felicity Palmer. Here Prina has the gift of a role in Matilde, though I did wish that she chewed the scenery more. She rises to the occasion superbly, though, in Matilde’s final accompagnato, Furie del crude averno. Sara Mingardo is wonderfully noble as the hero, Lotario and Hilary Summers nobly does her best with Idelberto, a character who seems rather ill-defined, perhaps as a result of the cuts in the libretto. Having seen her as a superb Giulio Cesare, I wish that the opera gave her rather more dramatic meat. Steve Davislim gets to do a lot of huffing and puffing as the evil Berengario, and he does it rather well. As the heroine, Simone Kermes has an affecting, rather fluttery voice, but she can delivery nobility and firmness when required.

All the cast are dramatically credible in their recitatives, making them involving and shaping them so that they sound like drama rather than just preludes to the arias. In the arias they are very fine stylists, knowing how to use Handel’s sometimes difficult vocal lines for dramatic purposes. Not everything is perfect; Simone Kermes has a tendency to aspirates in some of her runs; there are occasions when Steve Davislim does rather sound like a car starting, though elsewhere he turns in some very stylish singing. But no singer ever loses sight of the dramatic point; up to a point, I would far rather a singer err technically than dramatically in this music. Nowhere do we get the sort of icy perfection which can mar this music. Kermes also indulges in some highly ornate cadenzas with some stunning high notes, a little over the top for my taste but not everyone will agree.

Curtis conducts his small group (21 musicians in all) in exemplary style; tempi are just and the group’s playing is rich and stylish. The opera is just too long for 2 CDs so Curtis has trimmed the already compressed recitative and pruned six da capo arias down to just their A sections. This practice does have a precedent in Handel’s performances of his own operas, but I could not help wishing that Deutsches Harmonia Mundi had done what other companies have done in the past and extended the opera to three CDs but only charge the customer for two; then we could have had the opera properly complete.

The booklet includes the libretto and translations, but the English translation used is the one from the programme for the London premiere in 1729. This is an affectation that I wish record companies would get rid of, I find it rather unsatisfactory to have to listen to an opera filtered through the rather arcane language of the 18th century, something simpler and more direct would be far more satisfactory.

Many Handelians will want this opera to fill in a gap in their shelves. But for those that are not completists, buy it anyway for a fine performance or perhaps buy it as a present for those friends who think that Handel’s operas are all too long and all sound the same.

Robert Hugill


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