If you experienced
a double-take on reading the title of this review you can be
forgiven. Fernando … by Handel? You don’t recall an opera
of that name by the great German-cum-adopted British composer?
Well it’s not surprising since the piece, as such, never appeared
Handel was far advanced
with the score, indeed had completed the first two acts, when
he suddenly decided to change its location, its characters’
names and its overall title, before completing the work as “Sosarme,
Re di Media”. He then went back, completing the transformation,
by revising aspects of acts one and two, including the trimming
and alteration of some recitatives. Why, one might well ask?
Well it seems no-one is absolutely sure of the answer. The likeliest
explanation has come from the great Handel scholar Winton Dean.
It seems the change may have been politically motivated. King
John V of Portugal was the richest ruler in Europe at the time,
thanks to the mineral wealth of Brazil. They were also Britain’s
oldest allies. A libretto which presented the Portuguese royal
family in such an unflattering light - internecine warfare,
internal jealousies - would probably have caused apprehension
at best in George II’s court … possibly worse. Not being especially
“political”, Handel’s attention was drawn to the potential embarrassment
late-on in the proceedings, hence the apparently hasty changes.
That said, this
explanation isn’t entirely convincing. After all, the libretto
still seems risky …. Fernando or Sosarme the plot
still revolves around a dispute between a King and his heir
… and relations between George and Prince Frederick were hardly
rosy! Moreover offending anyone was hardly a key objective for
Handel at the time, since he was particularly anxious for a
success. He had presented two operas during the 1731-2 season
and the other, “Ezio”, had proved to be an expensive
disaster, appearing only five times before being withdrawn.
Whatever the reason
for the morphing of “Fernando” into “Sosarme”
the result was a great hit. The anonymous writer of a contemporary
pamphlet - actually commenting on the oratorio “Esther”
- describes the opera as “most pleasing”, and goes on to say:
“I am sorry I am so wicked but I like one good opera better
than twenty oratorios….”.
In short, Alan Curtis
and his forces appear to present us with an act of true historical
reconstruction; an opera that never happened. But are the results
just some dry, academic exercise unworthy of our attention?
Far from it.
Most of the score
will obviously be familiar from “Sosarme” anyway, which
despite being part of the acknowledged Handelian canon, has
hardly been overwhelmingly represented on disc. What’s more
it is a delightful score and it is fortunate here in being both
sensitively and expressively performed.
Act I opens with
a belligerent “follow me to war aria” from Alfonso, the son
of King Dionisio and Queen Isabella. The reason for Alfonso’s
anger is that he is likely to be usurped by Sancio, Dionisio’s
other son - although not a child of the Queen - who, whilst
reluctant to replace Alfonso, has both his father’s support
and that of the evil Altomaro, a royal councillor.
After this upbeat
beginning the royal princess Elvida appears, ravishingly sung
by Veronica Cangemi, to perform the aria “Rendi l’sereno al
ciglio” (“Sereneness to your eyes restore”), which she does
quite beautifully. I had not come across this singer previously
… but I will certainly be looking out for more of her work.
The middle and bottom of her voice remind me somewhat of Cecilia
Bartoli, but she has a creamy top range which makes set pieces
such as this a real joy to listen to. In fact I’m not sure she
doesn’t steal the show altogether, since she manages faster
music equally well, exhibiting great care over note values and
We then hear from
the evil Altomaro, originally a role designated for the great
bass Montagnana, and here sung with relish by Antonio Abate.
Later he is particularly effective in the act two aria “Sento
il cor che lieto gode” (I feel my heart exulting bound … that
such a happy fraud I’ve found”), exuding just the right amount
of oily satisfaction. Once again the copious divisions are easily
encompassed without distracting over-emphasis.
Max Emanuel Cencic
meanwhile contributes a mellifluous counter-tenor as the righteous
Sancio, a character which he avoids making unduly sanctimonious.
This he achieves in large part because of the light and justly-paced
accompaniment of the conductor, with tempos avoiding the charge
of being unduly stodgy …. a tribute to Curtis and his instrumentalists.
Fernando our eponymous
hero meanwhile is betrothed to Elvida, and is clearly unhappy
at the strife within his future family. This is also a character
which could easily slip into a two-dimensional protagonist,
a sort of moralistic “goody-two-shoes”, but is prevented from
doing so here by the artistry of Lawrence Zazzo who sings with
great feeling. Not content to merely “prettify” the music, he
manages to avoid making the Prince a cardboard cut-out.
By the time we reach
the third Act Fernando is attempting to resolve the strife by
means of diplomacy. Although he’s unaware of it, he in fact
has the goodwill of most of the parties, but is thwarted in
his efforts by the double-dealing of Altomaro. The latter manages
through deliberate misinformation to engineer a single combat
between Alfonso and Dionisio as an attempt to settle the argument
once and for all.
As the fighting
begins Isabella and Sancio intervene but are wounded. At this
the King and his son throw down their weapons and Altomaro steals
away from the scene. He is later found to have committed suicide,
as all the parties joyously disentangle his web of deceit and
are ultimately reconciled.
Whilst this may
not be Metastasio’s greatest plot, “Fernando/Sosarme”
does present a cogent and consistent narrative, hanging together
much better - and being a good deal less absurd - than many
of its stage contemporaries. As I hope I’ve indicated the dramatic
thrust is well maintained by Curtis and his singers, who avoid
a descent into caricature. Moreover they are pleasingly recorded
in the grateful acoustics of St Gallen’s Tonhalle.
An interesting essay
“The First Sosarme” by David Vickers graces the booklet, along
with the Italian libretto and translation …. into English only
… a slight oddity since Vickers’ work is translated into French
and German also.
Although the likes
of Alcina, Ariodante, Giulio Cesare, or
Rinaldo might feature more highly on the Handelian “hit-list”,
it has been a great pleasure to acquaint or re-acquaint myself
with this, possibly the most “schizophrenic” of the master’s