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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
S
osarme, Re di Media HWV30 (1732)
Sosarme – Alfred Deller (counter-tenor)
Haliate – William Herbert (tenor)
Erenice – Nancy Evans (soprano)
Elmira – Margaret Ritchie (soprano)
Argone – John Kentish (tenor)
Melo – Helen Watts (contralto)
Altomaro – Ian Wallace (bass-baritone)
St Anthony Singers
The St Cecilia Orchestra/Anthony Lewis
Rec. 1954
ANDROMEDA ANDRCD 5053 [76.06 + 70.35]

 

 

It’s probably the result of a relative lack of contemporary competition that has lent this 1954 recording such longevity. By my reckoning this Decca LP set has surfaced three times during the CD era – firstly on Opera d’Oro, then on Urania and now on Andromeda. It’s the Newport Classics set that has had the modern era to itself – an imperfect set to be sure but one that contains the good trio of Minter, Aler and Baird. And this 1954 Anthony Lewis recording can hardly be expected to compete with that in respect of changing views of tempi, ornamentation, and recitative tension – to name but three. However it does offer some compelling things for admirers of historical performances of Handelian opera.

Prominent amongst these pleasures is the conducting of the pioneering Anthony Lewis, whose credentials in this and allied repertoire need no real advancing. Fortunately he has Thurston Dart as harpsichordist and Dart’s imaginative realisation of the part – zestful when necessary but never becoming over-elaborate – is a pleasure in itself. The orchestra sounds like a big sort of band, with a leader whose playing can be inclined to the shrill in his accompanying roles, but the playing generally and throughout is properly supportive even when the tempi are slow.

Then of course there are the singers. Deller is the main focus of interest and the particular lineage of counter-tenors that followed him - Esswood, Bowman, Chance and Scholl – can be distinguished from the virtuosic soprano athleticism of such as David Daniels in Handelian repertoire. William Herbert gives a ramrod, not unattractive performance as Haliate – he’s especially convincing in Act I’s La turba adulatrice where Thurston Dart’s imaginative continuo work galvanizes things nicely. Nancy Evans takes on Erenice and her vinegary tone is an acquired taste. Some will deprecate it though others may reflect on the timbral contrast it affords her exchanges with Margaret Ritchie’s Elmira. Ideally you should sample Evans’s Se m’ascolti in Act II to see how well you respond to her vocalism.

Ritchie herself is excellent. Where Evans has to slow down for some of her divisions Ritchie surmounts them well. Even at slow tempi her legato is uncompromised; in the middle of her voice she is dead true; higher up there can be problems. In Act I’s Dite pace e fulminate we find that she has to spit out the topmost notes thus losing definition and support. But when she joins Deller in their great duet Per le porte (Act II) she shows that, despite the sedate tempo, her legato remains uncompromised and she and Deller shape their lines with considerable acumen.

High tenor John Kentish was given a really tough sing as Argone, a role written for an alto castrato. From his opening Di mio padre al fuor, which launches the first Act, we can hear the strain. The young Helen Watts makes an impressive showing in the small role of Melo and her long Act II aria So ch’il Ciel is a harbinger of the great things to come. Ian Wallace makes a notable, nobly rounded Altomaro – he doesn’t have quite the downward extension ideally necessary but he lacks for little in characterisation. He’s at his best in Act I’s Fra l’ombre e gli and Act II’s Sento il cor where there’s just a slight reminiscence of the older, lighter-voiced Australian baritone Harold Williams.

As for Deller his is a subtle piece of coloration. His legato, colour and line shaping in Sì, sì minaccia is typical of his invention and the way he projects Alle sfere della Gloria is similarly inspired. The vigorous animation he injects into Act III’s M’opporro da generoso is laced with a big rallentando of outsize generosity.

The original 1954 Decca recording had a number of problems and since none of the reissues have had access to the masters there’s little that can be done in this instance to attempt to mitigate them. There are a few very rough edits – a really bad one is in Act II’s Vado, vado al campo (CD 2 track 5).

So all in all this is one for the specialist – in Deller, and in historic operatic performances generally.

Jonathan Woolf

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