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
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.
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.