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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alcina. Dramma per musica in 3 acts HWV34 (1735) [188.36]
Sandrine Piau - Alcina; Maite Beaumont - Ruggiero; Angelique Noldus - Bradamante; Sabina Puertolas - Morgana; Chloe Briot - Oberto; Daniel Behle - Oronte; Giovanni Furlanetto - Melisso; Edouard Higuet - Astolfo
Tamerlano. Opera in 3 acts HWV18 (1724) [190.22]
Sophie Karthäuser - Asteria; Ann Hallenberg - Irene; Delphine Galou - Andronico; Christophe Dumaux - Tamerlano; Jeremy Ovenden - Bajazet; Nathan Berg - Leone; Caroline D’Haese - Zaida
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels, Belgium, February 2015
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; All Regions: Subtitles and Booklet in English, German, French, Dutch
Reviewed in surround
ALPHA 715 Blu-ray [188.36 + 190.22]

Handel's Alcina or Disenchantment was first performed at Covent Garden on the 16th April 1735. It was one of his last operas. It is a fantasy tale of the supernatural and, more essentially, of love and the confusion that often surrounds it. Musically it is a magnificent creation. Handel tells the story with music of astonishing variety, from virtuoso arias to ballet (though see the end of the review for the latter), from the quietest lyricism to the strongest depictions of anger. The quality never palls for one moment and all that is required from the performers is that they are the best the world can offer, and from the director that he does not obscure the story with irrelevant action. The former is achieved in spades by the singers listed above but in particular by Sandrine Piau as Alcina herself and by Sabina Puertolas as Morgana. They sing and act their roles with extraordinary passion. They are helped not a little by the directorial decision to keep extraneous paraphernalia to a minimum and to rely on the histrionic skills of the singers to act out the intense feelings in both expression and movement. Given that the costumes, like the settings, are simple versions of those Handel might have expected in 1735 nothing comes between the viewer and the action. By no means least of the contributions is that of the splendid Christophe Rousset and his superb period band Les Talents Lyriques. They cope with the merciless demands of their musical director especially as regards tempi, as if it were all in a day's work. Despite the plethora of great baroque orchestras we are now blessed with, Les Talens Lyriques have the power to amaze.

Tamerlano comes from nine years earlier and is a very different opera. Handel used a libretto by Agostino Piovene which was used by several other composers including, in 1735, one Antonio Vivaldi. The story is best known to English speakers from the very much earlier play by Christopher Marlowe Tamburlaine the Great of 1588. This story of the confrontation between the monstrous Tamerlano and a subject monarch Bajazet which involves death and destruction along with the usual desperate loves essential to opera, was approached by these two great composers from opposing positions. Handel focuses his opera on Tamerlano whilst Vivaldi entitles his setting of the same story Bajazet. The libretto brings out the best in both of them: Vivaldi's version can be heard to splendid effect on Virgin Classics if you can find the CD set, or on an Erato download.

Handel's work, which is presented here by the same orchestral and directorial forces as Alcina, above, was first performed at the King's Theatre Haymarket in late 1724. Handel was at the height of his success and gave his singers the greatest challenges in terms of dramatic confrontations and of expressive arias. There are few works where he presents more intensity than here. His public expected to be seeing and hearing the best tenors, sopranos and castrati of the day. This work must have been quite something for them to experience, performers and audience alike. By the time Bajazet takes his own life at the end they must have been at a peak of excitement. For the reasons already given, Rousset's orchestra excels. Jeremy Ovenden as Bajazet and Sophie Karthäuser as Asteria are outstanding, but especial praise must be given to male-contralto Christophe Dumaux who carries off the difficult task of convincing a modern audience that a high voice can properly portray the savage and angry Tamerlano, which is what Handel demands.

There is one very important aspect of these two productions that may nonplus viewers. Perhaps inevitably it is a staging decision by director Pierre Audi. Alcina and Tamerlano were both produced in 2000 for the Swedish baroque theatre at Drottningholm. They require that all producers use the baroque sets available at the Slottsteater and not introduce any modern elements in either settings or costumes. One would have to be on another planet not to have noticed that opera directors like the freedom to reinterpret operas on which they work. This is not the place to mention the curious confections that have resulted, not always to the benefit of the works themselves. Audi has gone along with these restrictions with two key 'adjustments'. First he has used only the barest minimum of the decorative scenic flats used to show the presence of forests or palaces or whatever, and combined that with an even more bare minimum of props, sometimes just one chair. The stage is usually startlingly empty of anything except the singers. He does allow himself one single transformation scene making clever use of cloud-painted flats. The second adaptation is the costumes: they are certainly of Handel's time, but they lack any decorative finery, bright colours or jewellery. Every performer dresses with a severity and plainness that would have pleasured Martin Luther. Perhaps I should say, almost every performer. There are one or two exceptions made for dramatic effect. All this means that we are left with very, very plain looking stage pictures for most of the time. Handel's own audiences would have expected scenes packed with detail, lots of props, mind-boggling transformations, and singers dressed as if readying themselves to appear before royalty, as indeed they might have been doing! So visually these are not authentic performances even though the sounds from the pit are explicitly and excitingly so. Audi has however, one ace up his directorial sleeve, he insists on the singers moving and emoting to the Nth degree so that no emotional moment goes unexpressed. I confess I didn't really want to like this, but it works brilliantly. Finally, did I mention ballet? Well there are perfunctory hints of this from the performers but it is not ballet as we know it. Handel's audience might have staged a riot faced, or more accurately not faced, with this. The booklet has well written synopses and essays explaining much of the history and director's decisions. With mostly subtle camera-work, sound and video quality as good as it gets, a real sound-sense of being in the front few rows of the theatre, this set is highly recommendable.

A brief word about the Blu-ray disc indexes, there are very few of them. The only way to play these works is from the start of each act. No access points are available for specific arias and choruses or even scenes. It does say 'Scenes' on the main menu but it is actually 'Acts'. Subtitles and sound formats are all subsumed under 'Sound' on the front menu. There are no extras.
 
Dave Billinge

 




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