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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Oreste, opera in three acts (HWV A11)
Mata Katsuli (Ifigenia), Maria Mitsopoulou (Ermione), soprano; Mary-Ellen Nesi (Oreste), mezzo; Nicholas Spanos (Filotete), alto; Antonis Koroneos (Pilade), tenor; Petros Magoulas (Toante), bass
Camerata Stuttgart/George Petrou
Recorded January 2004 at St Veit, Waldenbuch, Germany DDD
MDG 6091273-2 [76:38 + 69:49]



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This is not a recording of a recently rediscovered opera by Handel. It is a so-called 'pasticcio', which New Grove defines as "an opera made up of various pieces from different composers or sources and adapted to a new or existing libretto". This definition demonstrates that there are many ways in which a pasticcio can be assembled. Handel's Oreste is a good example. It was compiled by the composer exclusively from his own works in 1734 and first performed in December of that year at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London.

The music was adapted to a libretto by Giovanni Gualberto Barlocci, which is thought to have been reworked for Handel. He only used arias from previous operas, whereas the recitatives were composed especially, as well as two accompagnati, and probably also two pieces of ballet music. In her informative programme notes in the booklet, Annette Landgraf lists no less than six different techniques Handel used for the borrowing and adaptation process: "integration of the unchanged original, transposition of the original with the same text, transposition with a new text, editing of the source with the maintenance of the old text, editing of a source and the underlying of a new text, and, lastly, the original music with a new text either taken from the source libretto or completely rewritten for the already existing music".

The term 'pasticcio' came into general use only during the 18th century, and at first in a mostly pejorative way. But, as Curtis Price writes in his pasticcio article in New Grove, the practice of putting together music from different sources was well-known. In the second half of the 17th century the demand for opera in Italy was such that opera companies became increasingly dependent on revivals of previously performed operas. And as dramatic works of the time were usually written for a specific theatre and with specific singers in mind, revivals - in other theatres, and with other singers - forced companies to change parts of the opera as written by the composer with music from other sources which were more suitable to the actual circumstances and singers. It was not uncommon to use music by other composers for that reason, which made these revivals in fact a kind of 'pasticcio'. Towards the end of the century this practice became more widespread, a development which was enhanced by the fact that in the opera recitative and aria became less closely connected, which made it easier to replace one aria with another. This also led to a phenomenon like the 'suitcase aria': singers insisted on replacing arias in an opera by their favourite arias, which allowed them to show off, even though the character didn't fit with the overall content of the opera.

Perhaps some people who know their Handel operas will feel unease at hearing well-known arias in a completely different context. But to me this pasticcio sounds like a completely regular opera. The story is about Oreste, who, because of his crimes, is pursued by the Furies and has decided to go to Tauris to sacrifice himself to Diana. His sister is Diana's priestess, and although she doesn't recognize him, she tries to prevent his sacrifice. Oreste's wife Ermione, looking for him, and his friend Pilade are both arrested by Filotete, who is the captain of King Toante of Tauris. The reason is that they are foreigners. Toante has been told that Oreste will bring him down, and as he doesn't know Oreste, all foreigners are arrested to be killed. Toante, who falls in love with Ermione, is only willing to spare Oreste's life if Ermione succumbs to him. She refuses, and when Ifigenia reveals she is Oreste's sister, Toante urges her to kill both Oreste and Pilade. She not only refuses, but also threatens to kill him. Toante's captain, who is in love with Ifigenia, takes her side. A chorus sings "Kill, kill the tyrant". A fight takes place and Toante is killed.

In a way it is a shame that this pasticcio is recorded here with a cast of singers lacking any 'big name' from the baroque opera scene. As a result some people may stay away from this recording, thinking it must be 'second rate'. That would be a shame, as this performance is surprisingly good, both from a dramatic and a stylistic point of view. From the singers' biographies in the booklet one may assume that they don't have that much relevant experience, and some of them haven't performed very often outside their home country, Greece. If someone has told them how to perform baroque music, he or she has done a pretty good job. I have only two critical comments to make: Maria Mitsopoulou sometimes uses a little too much vibrato, and the cadenza of Antonis Koroneos in his aria 'Vado intrepido' seems to me a little off the mark. But otherwise I was pleasantly surprised by the stylish singing in evidence.

Another one who has done a great job is the person who was responsible for the casting. Maria Mitsopoulou has a strong, clear voice with some sharp edges, which makes her perfect for the role of Ermione - a pretty tough character. Mata Katsuli, on the other hand, has a much sweeter voice, which suits the role of Ifigenia very well. At first I wasn't really moved in any way by Mary-Ellen Nesi in the role of Oreste. Though she is in general pretty good, I occasionally found her singing a little too flat, for example in the aria 'Empio, se mi dai vita'.

Toante is a very one-dimensional character: rude, uncivilised, without a single sensitive bone in his body. Even his 'love' for Ermione has no tenderness at all. Petros Magoulas doesn't try to hide the unpleasantness of this character in any way. He gives a perfect portrayal of the villain of the piece. Antonis Koroneos makes more impression in the technical department than as the interpreter of the character of Pilade. His performance of the virtuosic aria 'Del fasto di quell'alma' in the third act is most admirable, but from a dramatic point of view his contributions tend to blandness. I have more or less the same problem with the male alto Nicholas Spanos, who has a very nice voice, although a little soft. When in his aria 'Qualor tu paga sei' he sings about his love for Ifigenia, I could imagine a little more passion than he shows here.

The Camerata Stuttgart play on modern instruments, but consistent with historical performance practice as far as possible. They are quite successful in that respect, although I didn't like the overture because of its staccato articulation and lack of dynamic differentiation.

I have listened to this recording with a great deal of pleasure. And I was wondering why these singers are not better known outside Greece. I certainly hope to hear more from them.

Johan van Veen



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