Arianna in Creta
was one of the first operas that Handel wrote for his company
after the majority of his singers departed to the rival Opera
of the Nobility. He was left with just soprano Anna Maria Strada
del Po from his old company; the remainder of the singers for
the 1733-34 season were all new. Besides Strada, for whom Handel
would write the title role in Alcina, the star of the
new company was the castrato Carestini for whom Handel wrote
the heroic role of Teseo in Arianna in Creta. Though
written comment from Handel’s time is rather equivocal regarding
the opera’s success, it does seem to have been a success with
audiences as it received over twenty performances in 1734.
The plot concerns
the familiar story of Theseus (Teseo) and the Minotaur, though
the details are somewhat different to the mythological story.
Teseo has arrived from Athens with the annual tribute, seven
young men and seven female virgins, who will all be fed to the
Minotaur. Teseo requests that Arianna be returned to Athens
in return; Teseo loves Arianna. She is the daughter of King
Minos but does not realise it, though Teseo does know, her old
nurse having confided the fact to Teseo’s father. Teseo loves
Arianna who loves Teseo. Unfortunately Arianna’s friend Carilda
is amongst the seven virgins and Teseo volunteers to fight the
Minotaur to save Carilda. This makes Arianna jealous; something
that is not helped by the fact that Carilda loves Teseo. Carilda
in her turn, is loved by Teseo’s friend Alceste and by the Cretan
general Tauride. Teseo kills the Minotaur; remarkably for baroque
opera this is depicted on stage. The result is happiness all
round with Teseo and Arianna, Carilda and Alceste pairing up.
The opera’s theme
is that steadfastness and love shall overcome barbarism and
cruelty; this is made explicit in the opening scene when the
great stone, on which is written the tribute agreement between
Athens and Crete, falls and shatters. Both threads of the plot,
Teseo fighting the Minotaur to the jeopardy of his relationship
with Arianna and Alceste’s steadfast love of Carilda, reinforce
the opera’s message. There is no enlivening sub-plotting and
there is no female soubrette. In fact the disposition of voice
parts is interesting, though probably the result of necessity.
The two soprano voices are Arianna and Alceste, all the others
are mezzo-sopranos or contraltos with a bass playing the two
small parts of King Minos and Sleep. Tauride is a effectively
mezzo part though it was written for the ageing soprano Margherita
Durastanti who, remarkably, had first appeared with Handel in
Rome in 1708.
This is not the
opera’s first outing on disc, a recording from the Göttingen
festival appeared in 1999 with Sophie Daneman in the title role.
This current recording originates from the Opera Festival of
Ancient Corinth where the performers presented the opera staged
by Niketi Kontouri. Conductor George Petrou has recorded Handel’s
pasticcio Oreste for MDG.
That the performers
had already performed the opera in a staged version is undoubtedly
an advantage as the dramatic performance from all the singers
is very vivid; the recitative really sounds like drama. When
it comes to the individual voices, none lets the opera down
and I I can heartily recommend the set to anyone interested
in exploring one of the more fascinating byways of Handel’s
As Arianna, Mata
Katsui displays a wonderfully liquid tone in her arias. Her
voice is affecting which admirably suits the rather lamenting
quality of the characters. Arianna is a bit wet, but she does
display admirable bravura temperament in her Act 1 arias, ‘Sdegno,
amore’ with its striking repeated Sdegno.
The hero, Teseo,
was one of two roles Handel wrote for the soprano castrato Carestini;
the other was Ariodante. Carestini specialised in bravura vocal
parts, reminiscent of Italian instrumental concerti. Handel
pulled out all the stops for him with seven arias, some dramatic
accompagnatos and a striking scene at the beginning of Act 2
when he dreams he is fighting the Minotaur. The actual slaying
is relatively matter of fact, it takes place during the extended
ritornello of the previous aria. Mary Ellen Nesi copes very
well with the part. She has an attractive, dark voice and an
amazing turn of speed in her bravura passagework. But, like
all the low voices on the disc, she has a noticeable vibrato
which, for me, gets in the way during the faster passagework.
I also found the faster runs came over as a little effortful.
But she creates a vivid picture of a dramatic hero and her performance
can be positively thrilling.
As the heroine’s
friend Carilda, Irini Karaini has another lovely dark voice,
but again I found her vibrato less than ideal and her passagework
untidy. She is a vivid performer though and probably comes over
very well in the theatre. Her would-be lover, Alceste, is sung
by Theodora Baka with beautiful tone and a fine line. Her Act
2 aria Son qual stanco Pellegrin has a lovely cello obbligato.
There are hints of untidiness in Baka’s faster passages but
with a voice as beautiful as this, who can complain.
Tauride is the nearest
thing that the opera has to a baddy. It is a relatively small
part but Handel wrote it for his old friend Margherita Durastanti
so Tauride gets some terrific arias including one with horns.
Marita Paparizou is a vivid performer with a rich voice, though
she is inclined to wildness in the more bravura passages. Petros
Magoulas is admirable in the relatively small role of King Minos.
The orchestra under
George Petrou start the overture crisply, cleanly and with admirable
bounce. They continue in this vein, providing lively support
to the singers and contributing some fine instrumental playing.
Besides the aforementioned arias with solo cello and with horns,
Alceste’s Act 3 aria is one of those where Handel writes an
independent line for unison violins, with striking results.
Arianna in Creta
is one of Handel’s underrated works from a period when he was
experimenting with form. Not all the arias display him at peak
form but they are never less than interesting. Here George Petrou
and his forces give a strong performance where vivid, dramatic
values are to the fore - I would love to have seen the staged
performances. My complaints regarding the singers are mainly
ones of style and may not bother everyone; certainly all concerned
cope admirably with some of Handel’s bravura vocal writing.