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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1789)
Faramondo - Opera in three acts, HWV39 (1738) [176:00]
Faramondo – Emily Fons (mezzo)
Adolfo - Maarten Engeltjies (counter-tenor)
Clotilde – Anna Devin (soprano)
Rosimonda – Anna Starushkevych (mezzo)
Gustavo – Njĺl Sparbo (bass)
Gernando - Christopher Lowrey (counter-tenor)
Teobaldo – Edward Grint (baritone)
Childerico – Iryna Dziashko (soprano)
FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Lawrence Cummings
rec. live, Göttingen International Festival, 2 June 2014. DDD
Booklet with notes, Italian text and English and German translations included.
ACCENT ACC26402 [3 CDs: 66:44 + 51:40 + 57:13]

This is the last in the series of Handel’s “heroic” operas. It ran for only eight performances after its premiere in January 1738. Since then it has been largely neglected before a relatively recent revival of interest, resulting in two studio recordings from 1996 and 2007. This is only the third recording available and is of a live radio broadcast from the Göttingen International Handel Festival earlier this year.

My heart sank when I beheld the cover photograph of this CD set featuring the ultimate tired cliché in Regietheater productions of Handel: a modern, militaristic production, all guns, dark glasses and black leather. Fortunately, on CD such worn-out tropes may be ignored.

Further heart-sinking occurred when I realised that there going to be obstacles to the ability of the listener to appreciate an opera afflicted with an already bafflingly complicated plot and a stilted libretto. The English version of the plot résumé is obviously not for “Faramondo” at all. It has been lifted wholesale from the booklet accompanying last year’s issue by Accent of their recording of Handel’s “Siroe”. You’re saved if you read German; otherwise, help is at hand from Wikipedia and happily a full libretto in three languages is supplied. Even so, one marvels that such a gross proofing/production error could occur in an otherwise attractive and lavishly produced booklet.

However, I suspect that many will join me in committing the heresy of remaining indifferent to or even despairing of mastering the intricacies of the plot. We can simply be satisfied to have a general grasp of the singer’s emotional circumstances and just enjoy Handel’s music. That might not ideally be what the composer intended or indeed how one should approach opera. That said, the conventions of Baroque opera can now make it seem so remote from what we can regard as realistic that this is the only viable approach for some listeners.

No doubt there is much great music here although I would not say that it consistently rivals the more popular and frequently recorded of Handel’s operas. One sparkling aria follows another, giving ample opportunity to the singer to demonstrate his or her range of expression and solid coloratura technique. The quality of singing and Italian diction is generally high, especially given the relative youth and inexperience of the singers. To be fair, all are technically more than adequate to the demands of the music and some are splendid. The palm, however, must go to the trio of female singers in the lead roles of Faramondo, Clotilde and Rosimonda. All have warm, flexible agile voices and generate considerable excitement and dramatic tension in their arias. Anna Devin’s smoky soprano is especially alluring and she gains the first “Bravo” from an audience that at first seems oddly unresponsive but gradually warms up. She is matched by Emily Fons’ mezzo-soprano which has the power and depth of colour to suggest that she would be just as comfortable in roles of a lower tessitura. Her voice at times reminds me of Jennifer Larmore and Joyce DiDonato – she’s that good.

The two counter-tenors are undoubtedly competent but both evince the besetting counter-tenor problem with finding resonance and body in the lower reaches of their falsetto. There is too often a certain cloudiness which prevents their voices carrying. Maarten Engeltjies’s voice is rather thin but he sings sweetly and I especially like his piano high notes. In truth, it is the singer who takes the subordinate counter-tenor role, Christopher Lowrey, who is the more complete artist with a fuller, more agreeable tone. The presence of both singers only serves to confirm what truly rare beasts singers like James Bowman, Andreas Scholl and David Daniels are.

I find the sole bass something of a growler, without the solid low notes and centred tone ideally required for his arias. He does too much grunting and shouting in his recitatives. To me, he sounds more like a baritone attempting to carry it off. The sole baritone as Teobaldo is similarly pedestrian with ugly, forced high notes.

Lawrence Cummings’ conducting is first class, with plenty of rhythmic spring and inner vitality. Nothing drags although in truth this opera is simply too long at just under three hours. His orchestra is light and fleet, without too much of the squeezing or whining which can vitiate the sound of a period band.

The usual stage noises occasionally obtrude without being of any consequence. The recording quality is excellent and singers are on-microphone most of the time, with a good balance between them and the small pit orchestra.
 
Ralph Moore