The pasticcio was a remarkably common baroque practice when
it came to putting on opera. As a genre, pasticcio was remarkably
flexible. It could consist of an opera, predominantly by one
composer but with extensive alterations and interpolations by
other hands, or simply an assemblage of different arias fitted
to an existing text. Quite often these mixtures would include
favourite arias of the singers involved, which showed them off.
Handel used pasticcios in his London seasons to pad out the
number of operas and to include music by other contemporaries
without having actually to mount an opera by another composer.
An interesting variant on this genre is the pasticcio where
Handel wrote all the music, but simply fitted pre-existing arias
to a libretto. In fact Handel’s opera Rinaldo comes
perilously close to this because most of the arias were lifted
from earlier material on the basis that as Rinaldo was
his first opera for London, Londoners would not have heard any
of his Italian music.
Oreste is an example of the so called “genuine
pasticcio”. The libretto, by Berlocci, was originally
written for Rome in 1723. Handel radically shortened the piece,
reducing 1119 lines down to 412. Londoners seemed to have fallen
out of love with secco recitative and in his late operas Handel
was generally ruthless in his cutting, sometimes to the point
of absurdity in the plot.
Oreste was written for the Covent Garden season of 1734/35,
which means that Handel had a small chorus and a ballet company
at his disposal. Like the other operas in the season, Oreste
takes advantage of these, with ballets concluding each act.
The final two scenes of the opera consist of a flexible structure
of recitative, chorus, aria, recitative, ballet, final coro.
It is a remarkably short opera, with three acts lasting a mere
160 minutes, which is quite brief by Handelian opera seria terms.
It was written for quite a strong cast with the mezzo-soprano
castrato Carestini (creator of Ariodante) playing Oreste, Cecilia
Young was Ifigenia, Anna Strada del Po (creator of Alcina) was
Ermino and John Beard was Pilade. In fact, Carestini had sung
the role of Pilade in the original 1723 setting of the libretto
(by Benedetto Micheli).
Handel took the overture, sinfonias, arias, duets and final
coro from the earlier work, adding new recitatives and some
new ballet music. The opening scene with Oreste plagued by the
furies is imaginatively re-cycled from Agrippina’s Pensieri,
with other items coming from, amongst other works:Tamerlano,Floridante
The plot is basically that of Euripides play, familiar from
Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride. Oreste (Cornelia
Lanz), driven mad by the furies after killing Clytemnestra his
mother, has taken refuge in Taurus, which is ruled by Toante
(Kai Preussker) and where Ifigenia (Sabine Winter) (Oreste’s
sister) is high priestess. Toante requires Ifigenia to sacrifice
all strangers; when she discovers Oreste, Ifigenia does not
recognise him but wants to save him. Toante’s captain,
Filotete (Armin Stein) is in love with her so she gets his help.
Oreste’s wife, Ermione (Natasja Docalu), and friend, Pilade
(Christian Wilms), come in search of him, are arrested and condemned
to death but Toante is entranced by Ermione’s beauty.
Finally Toante is overthrown and all ends happily. As with other
Handelian adaptations of Greek myth, the elegant simplicity
of the plot is muddied by additions which are deemed necessary
to baroque taste. But if you forget about Gluck, then the results
make quite a well put together plot.
The piece has already appeared on disc in a 2004 Dabringhaus
und Grimm recording where George Petrou directed a cast of Greek
singers accompanied by the Camerata Stuttgart on modern instruments.
The recording was accorded a cautious welcome but there were
complaints about a ‘distant acoustic’ and ‘woolly
delivery of text by the bass and tenor soloists’.
This new recording has predominantly German-speaking soloists
and is directed by Tobias Horn who is based in Ludwigsburg.
Cornelia Lanz as Oreste has a remarkably facility with Handelian
fioriture and in many ways sings the title role elegantly and
expressively. Her voice is nicely warm and the role seems to
sit well - Carestini’s voice was rather higher than most
modern counter-tenors. But there is something of a slight edge
to her singing at times which seems to presage stress in the
voice, but this stress never quite surfaces. It seems that this
is purely a vocal tic and whilst it would be a shame to dismiss
her performance because of it, I found that I did notice it
on repeated listening.
Nastasja Docalu has a pleasant, boyish voice. Again, she has
fine facility with Handel’s vocal line. I am not quite
sure whether her vocal timbre is quite suitable for the married,
and patently sexy Ermione. It does however have the advantage
that she and Sabine Winter, singing Ifigenia, are clearly differentiated
which is always a plus sign in an unfamiliar baroque opera.
I was rather taken with Winter: she has a warm, flexible voice
with rather more depth of tone than Docalu and no less facility.
The two women’s parts are quite well balanced, with each
getting five arias (to Oreste’s six), though Ermione also
gets the duet with Oreste.
Armin Stein has a pleasantly serviceable counter-tenor voice,
though he only gets three arias - one in each Act.
Christian Wilms makes quite a baritonal Pilade and Kai Preussker
is a nicely black Toante, with a suitably flexible voice. Pilade
has three arias - one in each Act - whereas Toante is restricted
Tobias Horn directs quite small forces: just six violins and
a band of seventeen in total. The results are crisp and incisive
and orchestra holds its own in the ballet movements. Horn’s
direction is quite brisk, but not distressingly so.
The booklet includes an article in English, but the libretto
is printed only in Italian and German, so if you speak neither
of these languages then you are a little bit stymied. Rather
annoyingly the booklet does not provide a detailed list of the
sources for the arias, but then again this complaint is lodged
against the Dabringhaus und Grimm recording as well.
There are no real show-stopping arias here. But a strong cast
have put together a creditable performance of what is actually
rather a good Handel opera, even though we critics have a tendency
to be sniffy about the pasticcio form. If you have the Dabringhaus
und Grimm/Petrou recording then this one is not, perhaps, stunning
enough to warrant being bought as well. But if you don’t
have it, then do try this one as there are some delightful moments
and the drama is by no means as crazy as in some baroque operas.