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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Destero dall empia dite (Amadigi) (1715)
Míhai resa infelice (Deidamia) (1741)
Piagero la sorte mia (Giulio Cesare) (1724)
Scherza in mar (Lotario) (1729)
Ombre piante; Seíl mio duol (Rodelinda) (1725)
Tutta raccolta ancor (Scipione) (1726)
Orrida a glíocci miei (Ariodante) (1735)
Ah. crudel (Rinaldo) (1711)
Sommi dei; Barbaro, partiro (Radamisto) (1720)
Emma Bell (soprano)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Richard Egarr
Recorded 8Ė10 September 2004, Usher Hall, Edinburgh
LINN CKD 252 [51.24]




In the opera business, undoubtedly talent helps but it being in the right place at the right time can be a bonus. Soprano Emma Bell took over the title role in a production of Handelís Rodelinda at five hours notice in 1998; the production was at Glyndebourne so everyone noticed. Bell had the talent and charisma to capitalise on that notice; besides further appearances in the Glyndebourne Rodelinda she played Handelian heroines in Opera Northís production of Radamisto and Grange Park Operaís Rinaldo - in both cases creating a striking personal success.

Since then she has been less in the public eye in Britain, partly because she took a contract at the Komische Oper in Berlin. A sensible move as it has enabled her to keep a firm hand on her career and the roles she plays. In a recent interview, commenting on the pressure she is under to sing roles in Richard Straussís operas, she said that few singers are able to return to singing Handel once they start on the bigger, Straussian roles and that there were still Handel roles she wishes to sing; I gather that she has not sung Cleopatra yet and judging by her account of Piangero on this disc, it canít be long before someone snaps her up in the role. More recent British roles have included Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito at the Coliseum (where she showed a wonderfully fearsome disregard for the roleís tessitura) and Leonore in Nielsenís Maskarade at Covent Garden. Her future includes more Handel (Rodelinda and Alexanderís Feast), the St. John Passion, Agathe in Weberís Die Freischutz and the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro.

This disc of Handelian opera seria is thus intended as something of a showcase for her talent and was made possible thanks to a grant from the Borletti-Buitoni trust. Bell casts her net wide in her selection, including arias from Handelís first (Rinaldo) and last (Deidamia) operas for London. She includes arias from operas that she has performed in (Rinaldo, Radamisto and Rodelinda) but interestingly for the Rinaldo arias chooses two of Polinessaís rather than those of Tigrane (the character she sang for Opera North).

The recital is a well-judged mix between well known and lesser known pieces. It opens with a wonderfully brilliant account of Melissaís aria Destero dall empia dite from Amadigi; Bell beautifully shapes the quieter middle section and in the ritornello there features some fine trumpet playing from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I was particularly taken with Deidamiaís Míhai resa infelice, an aria in which Handel plays with the typical da capo aria form by repeating the middle section as well so the aria is in the form ABAB rather than the usual ABA; though in this aria I was slightly troubled by Bellís vibrato in the upper register.

She also includes one of Adelaideís aria from Lotario; a role originally created by Strada. But of course, one returns to the great arias; a haunting Piangero from Giulio Cesare and a wonderfully contrasting pair from Rodelinda. The first aria from Rodelinda is the great aria Ombre piante which Rodelinda sings in front of the memorial to her (supposedly) dead husband. The second, Seíl mio duoi non e si forte, a heartrending number where Rodelinda feels like giving up after discovering that her husband is dead, again.

In his best arias, Handel excelled at making his charactersí emotions real. Bell excels at characterising this emotion and all of her performances are wonderfully vivid. One can take as read Bellís capability with the virtuoso technical aspects of these arias and she is one of those enviable singers who are able to go beyond sheer bravura and use the vocal line for expressive purposes.

Handelís opera were written for the greatest singers of his day, so we must assume that he wrote for a rich array of voice types; it is one of the joys of recent performances of Baroque opera that more singers are comfortable with its demands so that we get away from the tendency to sing just with a pure, white voice. Bellís voice is certainly not white; it is wonderfully rich and vibrant but allied to great virtuosity. Heard live her voice is expressive and beautiful but I am not quite sure that these qualities have been caught on this disc. I think a little more air around the singer would have helped; we seem to be listening to her at slightly too close quarters. I was rather aware of her use of vibrato, something that has never disturbed me live. Some singers have voices which respond to being recorded at a distance in a real situation, rather than at close quarters in the studio. Perhaps Iím being picky and other ears will hear her differently.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Richard Egarr play with wonderful style, crispness and bravura. They manage to combine the virtues of modern instruments with suitable period practice and various players contribute some fine solo playing in various arias.

I will treasure this disc as a record of a fine singer at her wonderful peak at a particular point in her career; as her voice develops Handel will cease to be so central to her repertoire and Iím sure there will be further wonderful peaks. But I canít get rid of the niggling feeling that on this disc the engineers could have made her sound even better.

Robert Hugill




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