Faramondo is not one of Handel’s best known operas though
it is one of the latter, composed just before the more famous
Serse. It was first performed on 3 January 1738 at the
King’s Theatre, Haymarket in London; there were a total of eight
performances and it was never revived. The first modern production
took place in Halle, Germany, in 1976. Faramondo was Handel’s
only libretto by Zeno but it was cut to such a degree that, even
today, it is rendered a little incomprehensible.
The plot is based
on the story of Pharamond, a mythological King of France, in
the 5th Century AD. The opera begins with Gustavo,
King of the Cimbrians, taking an oath to avenge the death of
his young son Sveno at the hands of Faramondo, King of the Franks.
Teobaldo, Gustavo’s captain, brings in Clotilde, Faramondo’s
sister, who has been taken captive. She should be killed, as
Faramondo’s relative, but Gustavo is taken by a sudden passion
for her and orders her release. In the meantime, Gustavo’s surviving
son, Adolfo, who is in love with Clotilde, promises to defend
her brother rather than kill him, as he has sworn to do, and
so prove his devotion to her. In the meantime, Rosimonda, Gustavo’s
daughter, is under attack from Faramondo’s soldiers and is then
opportunely saved by Faramondo himself. Predictably, they fall
in love, which is not only against their political and family
loyalties but, for Faramondo, it brings an additional problem:
He is now a rival of his ally, Gernando, King of the Swabians,
who is also in love with Rosimonda, and swears to win her heart
and get rid of his former friend. This is all very complicated!
There are then two unsuccessful attempts on Faramondo’s life:
the second time he is protected by Rosimonda herself who sends
him to her apartment. But this would all be too straightforward!
So, enter Teobaldo, Gustavo’s captain, who tries to gain admittance
to Rosimonda’s rooms because he wants to avenge Sveno, who,
as it turned out, was really his son and not Gustavo’s. Faramondo
eventually rescues Gustavo from defeat at the hands of Gernando
and Teobaldo, who became allies, and generously offers his own
life to end the fighting. Adolfo tries to intervene in Faramondo’s
favour but his father is obviously displeased and imprisons
him; however he is also impressed with Faramondo’s attitude.
He feels though that he cannot go back on his oath and must
avenge the death of his son Sveno. Gustavo is about to kill
Faramondo when he is interrupted by a letter from Teobaldo,
which reveals the truth: he confesses that he exchanged Gustavo’s
son for his own, at birth, so that Sveno could inherit the throne.
It turns out that Childerico, believed to be Teobaldo’s son,
is actually Gustavo’s. Confusing? Well, yes but everything will
soon end in perfect, clear harmony. So, the young man that was
killed was Sveno who was in reality Teobaldo’s child. Therefore,
Faramondo has never committed a crime against Gustavo’s family.
All’s well that ends well! The opera closes with a happy ending.
Adolfo and Clotilde remain together, Gustavo realises his mistake
and Rosimonda is united with Faramondo, who then praises the
victory of generosity over hatred.
Once one gets over
the complications of the plot, there is actually some interesting
music, several really good arias and a couple of rather pretty
duets. If one thinks about other operas by Handel, Faramondo
compares unfavourably through a lack of fluidity in the musical
and dramatic narratives. There are some wonderful moments: all
of Adolfo’s arias in general and in particular in Act I, Scene
4, Chi ben ama, beautifully sung by Philippe Jaroussky
in his inimitable, luminous tone and high flights of coloratura.
Then there is Rosimonda’s aria in Act II, Scene 2, Sì, l’intendesti,
sì, fabulously executed by Marina di Liso and a perfect
vehicle for her colourful mezzo and amazing range. Finally I
should mention all the arias for Faramondo, especially his final
aria with chorus, Virtù, che rende, wonderfully performed
by Max Emanuel Cencic, perhaps the greatest revelation in this
recording, with an unusually rich, melodic tone for a counter-tenor.
Two other moments of great beauty are undoubtedly the duets
of Faramondo and Rosimonda, at the end of Act II, Vado e
vivo con la speranza; and of Clotilde and Adolfo in Act
III, Scene 2, Caro, cara, tu m’accendi. Each is supremely
sung by Cencic and de Liso, and Jaroussky and Karthäuser respectively.
performances in this recording are to my mind those by Cencic,
in the title role; Jaroussky as Adolfo and de Liso as Rosimonda.
The role of Faramondo was originally written for the famous
castrato Cafarelli - whose real name was Gaetano Majorano and
like the celebrated Farinelli was a student of Nicola Porpora.
His voice is said to have been similar to that of a mezzo-soprano
with a high tessitura and an extensive range, which is
more or less how one could describe Cencic’s voice. It fits
the role perfectly. He eloquently displays his range and virtuosity.
Adolfo was originally written for a soprano but Jaroussky’s
crystal-clear, crisp, high and pure counter-tenor vividly brings
the young prince to life, expressively depicting his passions
and conflicts. Rosimonda was composed for an alto; de Liso’s
mezzo possesses some wonderfully dark tones in the lower range
and these enable her to sing the role in a very effective manner.
Her voice is not only beautiful but also unusual, ranging from
a low contralto to very warm and easy high notes.
The other singers
are all very good and deliver solid performances, notably Sophie
Karthäuser as Clotilde and Xaxier Sabata as Gernando. I reserve
special mention for In-Sung Sim as Gustavo, with his pleasing,
grave bass. As is often the case, in operas of the Baroque Period,
in Faramondo there is also an excess of high voices:
four counter-tenors, one soprano and one mezzo. Counter-tenors
were not known in Handel’s time, so the composer wrote the title
role for a castrato, Clotilde and Adolfo for sopranos, Rosimonda
and Gernando for altos and Childerico for a treble. Invariably,
nowadays, counter-tenors take the leading roles for the castrati
and sometimes the male roles that were written for women’s voices.
This is fine in itself but what occasionally happens, particularly
on a CD, is that if one is not following the libretto closely
and is not familiar with Italian, one is left wondering who
is who and if it is a male or a female character singing during
a particular moment in the disc. This happens many times in
this recording with the exception of the performances by Cencic,
Jaroussky and de Liso because they have very distinctive voices.
At some stage, I felt tired of listening to so many “feminine”
voices and found myself longing for a clear and sensual tenor
sound. The bass of Sim, as Gustavo, and the baritone of Bettini
as Teobaldo offer some “relief” but their roles are too grave
and deep, making a contrast that is often excessively heavy.
I Barocchisti and
the Coro della Radio Svizzera under the excellent direction
of Diego Fasolis deliver a remarkably well-judged and restrained
interpretation of this opera by Handel. They perform in an understated
yet expressive manner, enhancing every bar of Handel’s music,
effectively carrying the soloists’ voices but never overwhelming
them or forgetting the composer’s dramatic intention. It is
only the second time that I have heard I Barocchisti and they
did not disappointment me; on the contrary they far exceeded
my expectations. It was the first time that I have listened
to the Coro della Radio Svizzera and I am happy to write that
they were a pleasing revelation.
Finally, all there
is left for me to say is that this 3-CD set is really an excellent,
solid recording of one of Handel’s least known operas, with
some wonderful singing and effective performances. It is presented
in an elegant, stylish package, displaying a beautiful photograph
of a forest in the Autumn by Italian photographer Maurizio Blasetti.
All in all, a very satisfying and welcome addition to the collection
of Handel’s opera recordings.