Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1739)
Oreste (1734) [157.13]
Oreste - Cornelia Lanz (mezzo)
Ermione - Nastasja Docalu (soprano)
Ifigenia - Sabine Winter (soprano)
Filotete - Armin Stein (counter-tenor)
Pilade - Christian Wilms (tenor)
Toante - Kai Preussker (baritone)
Instrumental Ensemble/Tobias Horn
rec. 24-29 July 2010 Stadtkirche Besigheim, Germany
ANIMATO ACD6123 [79.12 + 78.01]
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 and Sosarme.
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 to two.
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.
A strong cast in a creditable performance of what is actually rather a good Handel opera.