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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Alcina (1735) [203:00]
Joyce DiDonato (soprano) – Alcina
Maite Beaumont (soprano) – Ruggiero
Sonia Prina (mezzo) – Bradamante
Karina Gauvin (soprano) – Morgana
Kobie van Rensburg (tenor) – Oronte
Vito Priante (bass) - Melisso
Laura Cherici (soprano) – Oberto
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Viterbo, Italy, September 2007
ARCHIV PRODUKTION 477 7374 [3 CDs: 76:24 + 72:16 + 54:36]
Experience Classicsonline

The Handel anniversary year has brought us many new treats, but this, to my mind, is the best of them all so far. Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco have been gracing us with some fantastic Handel opera recordings since the 1970s. They started on EMI, but their more recent work on Archiv has been even more exciting than their early projects. Alcina, perhaps Handel’s greatest opera, is also perhaps their greatest recording.
I have not always been complimentary about Handel’s operatic style in these pages, but what marks this set out as something special is not just the fantastic singing: it is the way that this set sparkles with dramatic tension and real human emotions in a way that many other struggle to do. The sorceress Alcina stands for anyone who has felt - or who has feared - their powers of attractiveness fade away and Handel’s music traces her journey into despair and powerlessness, from her love-besotted opening aria to her abject sorrow in the final act when she realises that nothing is left for her except tears. Joyce DiDonato, who has made an extraordinary name for herself internationally, here gives an astonishing portrayal of the sorceress. You can take the beauty of her voice for granted: her entrance aria, Di’, cor mio is voluptuous and fulsome, a real depiction of the infatuation that comes with love, and to match it DiDonato sings with rich, creamy tone that is quite marvellous. There is more to her assumption than just beauty, though: the portrayal changes with the character. She captures venom and hysteria for the dramatic arias that accompany Alcina’s steady realisation that she is losing her powers, and her final aria, Mi restano le lagrime, drips with overwhelming poignancy without losing its beauty. Perhaps her greatest moment, however, is Ombre pallide, the aria that ends Act 2, when Alcina calls to the spirits who she can sense around her but are now refusing to listen. The first run of the aria carries a mood of quiet desperation, while the da capo is full of understated terror. DiDonato owns this territory and in this recording she has made herself the greatest Alcina on disc.
She, however, is not the only great vocal actor on this set: there is not a single weak link in the cast. Karina Gauvin’s Morgana is as alluring as her sister: Ama, sospira in the second act is seductive with an edge of malice which is entirely appropriate to the dramatic context, while the famous Tornami a vagheggiar is carried off with panache to match even Sutherland or Dessay: the da capo ornamentations are really astonishing! Ironically the Ruggiero of Maite Beaumont sounds much more feminine than the Bradamante of Sonia Prina. Beaumont has an alluring lovelorn quality to her voice which matches the enchantment of Act 1 and the wistful nostalgia of Verdi prati, but she is capable of the character’s more intense utterances, such as his self-reproach at the start of Act 2. By contrast, Prina sounds positively masculine in Acts 1 and 2, though I suppose that’s not entirely appropriate for a character who spends most of the opera disguised as a man. Her voice carries beauty, but her real triumph is in the dramatic arias: E gelosia in Act 1 and Vorrei vendicarmi in Act 2 are jaw dropping in their vocal acrobatics but without ever losing their innate musicality and dramatic purpose. Laura Cherici’s Oberto really sounds like a boy, plangent and vulnerable in his first aria but growing into the beginnings of a hero by the final act. Importantly in an opera like this, all the female voices are distinctively different so that the vocal texture never suffers. Vito Priante’s Oberto is suitably authoritative and if Kobie van Rensburg’s Oronte has the occasional unsteady moment they are very few and far between.
Anchoring the whole set, though, is the orchestra and continuo. Il Complesso Barocco give us lithe, transparent playing throughout and Curtis’s conducting is flexible and responsive at every turn. It is he more than anyone who understands the drama of the work. To see what I mean listen to Alcina’s Act 1 aria Si, non quella. This beautiful aria features Alcina trying for the first time to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer what she was: the singing is very beautiful, but there is a subtle reticence to the accompaniment which suggests that, in spite of her words, she is unable fully to convince herself that she really is as “true” as she claims to be.
There have been other great recordings of Alcina. In Richard Bonynge’s 1962 set there are some wonderful musical moments, though one can barely detect a single consonant in the whole of Joan Sutherland’s performance of the title role. Richard Hickox’s 1986 recording on EMI has some really remarkable singing with safe-pair-of-hands playing and conducting, while William Christie’s 1999 recording from the Paris Opéra features an outstanding - if somewhat inauthentic - cast including Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Natalie Dessay. Interesting as Nigel Bolton’s Munich recording was it didn’t quite match Christie’s. Until now the Christie was the version that came closest to the ideal, but this new recording jumps straight to the top of the Alcina pile. In fact I would go even further and say that if you have never heard a Handel opera before or are a little nervous about where to start then this is the best introduction to that world that I can think of.
Simon Thompson


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