George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Imeneo – opera in three acts (1738)
Imeneo – Magnus Staveland (tenor)
Tirinto – Ann Hallenberg (mezzo)
Rosmene – Monica Piccinini (soprano)
Argenio – Fabrizio Beggi (bass)
Clomiri – Cristiana Arcari (soprano)
Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi
rec. Halle, June 2015 GLOSSA GCD923405 [44.31 + 70:20]
Handel’s penultimate opera largely suspends action in favour of probing the question of choosing a romantic partner. Although the story of Rosmene’s rescue from pirates seems improbable today, the premise of a choice to be made between fidelity (to her beloved Tirinto) and duty (to her deliverer Imeneo) remains a potent and relevant one, even in our time of sexual liberation. Despite the little drama there is, and the fact that the opera is virtually chamber-like in scale, it yet provides music of attractive freshness and charm. There is additional interest in its complex gestation, as it was originally drafted in 1738, but revised by the composer in 1740 in anticipation of its first performance. It was then revived as an Italian serenata in Dublin 1742, during the same trip that saw the premiere of Messiah.
It is the latter version which Fabio Biondi presents here, for which Handel transposed the part of Imeneo up to the tenor voice — reverting to the plan in his original draft — and substituting a few alternative numbers which, to some extent, heighten the dramatic impact of the work. The relatively well-known rage aria ‘Sorge nell’alma’, expressing jealous aggravation, is transferred from Tirinto to Imeneo, temporarily undermining what seems to be the foregone conclusion in the opera that he will be the successful suitor for Rosmene. Before the close of the work, Handel inserts the ravishing duet ‘Per le porte’ from his earlier opera Sosarme, not for Imeneo and Rosmene to sing as the celebration of their partnership as one would expect, but for her and Tirinto instead. This makes more poignant the fact of the latter’s resignation to his loss of Rosmene to Imeneo and calls to mind the similar scene of reconciliation to which the Marschallin accedes in the trio at the end of Der Rosenkavalier. It is a sign of Handel’s theatrical genius that, despite the outward action on stage, he manipulates and enlists our real emotional sympathies for Tirinto’s situation by the use of such music and the sullen minor-key chorus to conclude the opera.
Biondi leads a cast and performance from Europa Galante that is graceful and frequently characterised by what might be identified as an Italianate sensibility. At times this bristles with Vivaldian vigour (as in the Overture) or exudes a more delicate charm particularly in the embellishments which Biondi provides in his direction from the solo violin. The performance certainly also bears the more relaxed atmosphere of a serenata rather than being impelled by the dramatic tension one might expect of a more operatic reading. The choral interjections — somewhat more extensive than is to be found in virtually any other of Handel’s operas — lack some thrust, and Monica Piccinini is rather too casual as Rosmene in the mad scene towards the end, not making enough of the scene’s far-ranging harmonies.
The other singers are more than serviceable and offer distinctive musical personalities, though as Imeneo Magnus Staveland occasionally sounds a little rough. His coloratura lines are not always seamlessly delivered but come out with a slight ricochet effect. The folksong-like ease with which Ann Hallenberg realises the unaccompanied snatches of melody in ‘E si vaga’ is a highlight, and she elicits the listener’s compassion for the turnaround in Tirinto’s fortune.
The recording does not supplant that by Andreas Spering and the Capella Augustina, which is more dramatically probing and ultimately convincing. For different reasons, the two other recordings – Rudolph Palmer’s musically weak version, and Horst-Tanu Margraf’s old fashioned, heavy-handed and re-ordered travesty – do not really engage with Handel’s intentions and values in ways that are likely to find much favour in the light of current performance practice and knowledge. The Capella Augustina offers a generally more robust and dependable account of the score serving more consistently the cause of Handel’s supreme mastery of melody and harmony, rather than aiming for something like affekt in the moment of each aria as Biondi tends to do. Johanna Stokovic makes more of Rosmene’s mad scene in Act Three, for example, than does Piccinini, and generally sounds less like a vulnerable victim of external circumstance, but a woman of more independent, redoubtable mien; though some may find Piccinini more likeable for that reason. However, as a reconstruction of the work’s 1742 version, Biondi’s account complements Spering’s realisation of the 1740 score by including the variants which Handel used on the later occasion. It will certainly be of interest to devotees of this composer.