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Handel’s Last Prima Donna – Giulia Frasi in London
Ruby Hughes (soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Laurence Cummings
rec. 2017, Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Full sung English texts provided

For her Chandos debut album British soprano Ruby Hughes has chosen themed repertoire sung by Handel’s last prima donna, the Italian soprano Giulia Frasi. The collection is a mix of well-known airs by Handel and several overlooked airs from composers of around the same era who were also active in London namely Thomas Arne, Vincenzo Ciampi, John Christopher Smith and Philip Hayes. I notice that several of these airs are specified as being première recordings.

Giulia Frasi (fl. 1740-1774) is best known for having created principal soprano roles in several of Handel’s final oratorios such as Susanna, Theodora and Iphis from Jephtha. Just two years after making her debut Frasi came to London in 1742 and gradually the importance of her roles increased. As Hughes infers it seems no coincidence that Frasi’s career ascended when Handel began writing for her. Notably Frasi sang for around fourteen seasons at King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Frasi’s final concerts were said to be in 1774 at London. On this release the arias Hughes has carefully selected demonstrates Frasi’s specialisation with roles that are temperamental and highly emotional, and according to musicologist David Vickers “charted with affecting pathos.”

Hughes is in delightful form throughout this collection and there are many highlights with the Handel works shining out like beacons. One of her finest performances is from the oratorio Susanna. Parted from her new husband Joacim in the air ‘Crystal streams in murmurs flowing’ (track 1) Susanna lyrically expresses the blissful qualities of nature and bathes in a garden stream. With Hughes displaying her smooth, golden tone with both purity and with such excellent enunciation this is a persuasive depiction of the heroine’s vulnerability.

One of my favorite Handel works, the oratorio Theodora contains several captivating airs and particularly affecting is the soprano’s heartfelt rendition of ‘With darkness deep as is my woe’ (track 12). With impeccable attention to the text Hughes provides impressive depth of expression compassionately portraying the heroine’s miserable situation and torment by the threat of violation.

Of the lesser known works, I especially enjoyed from Arne masque Alfred Hughes as Eltruda with the air ‘Gracious heav'n, O hear me!’ (track 9). Performed with vivacity and commitment in the di capo aria di bravura Hughes quickly leaps to her highest notes which are extremely bright and narrow, maybe not the most attractive tone I’ve ever heard here but most effective nonetheless.

The composer Philip Hayes is a new name to me and here he is represented by the masque Telemachus.
As siren Parthenope issuing her grave vanitas warning with the air ‘Soon arrives thy fatal hour’ Hughes is in radiant form. Conveyed with consistency and concentration, striking is Hughes’ purity of tone and gloriously smooth mid-range.

Praise is due to both conductor Laurence Cummings for his assurance and sympathetic pacing, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who give an uncommonly stylish performance with especially adroit playing on period instruments.

Recorded at Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London the sound engineers have excelled providing excellent clarity and balance.

No problem whatsoever with the presentation of the album. In the booklet there is a helpful and interesting essay from David Vickers placing each work in the context of the oratorio/opera/masque, there’s a note from Ruby Hughes and I am grateful for the provision of full sung English texts.

An enthralling blend of established baroque works and new discoveries makes this satisfyingly performed album from Ruby Hughes particularly desirable.

Michael Cookson

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
1. Susanna: Crystal streams in murmurs flowing [8:14]
Air from Act II, Scene 2 of the three-act oratorio Susanna, HWV 66 (1749)
Vincenzo CIAMPI (1719-1762)
2. Emirena: O Dio! Mancar mi sento* [8:35]
Aria from Act III, Scene 7 of the three-act 'dramma per musica' Adriano in Siria (1750)
3. Camilla: Là per l'ombrosa sponda* [4:39]
Aria from Act II, Scene I of the 'dramma per musica' Il trionfo di Camilla (1750)
Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778)
4. Arbaces: Why is death for ever late [2.21]
Air from Act III, Scene 1 of the three-act serious opera Artaxerxes (1762)
John Christopher SMITH (1712-1795)
5. Eve: Oh! do not, Adam, exercise on me thy hatred [1:02]
6. It comes! it comes! it must be death! [5:45]
Accompanied recitative and song from Act III of the three-act oratorio Paradise Lost (1760)
7. Rebecca: But see, the night with silent pace steals on* [1:32]
8. O balmy sleep!* [4:51]
Accompanied recitative and song from Act II of the three-act oratorio Rebecca (1761)
Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778)
9. Eltruda: Gracious heav'n, O hear me! Air from Act II, Scene 2 of the three-act masque Alfred (1740)
George Frideric HANDEL)
10. Sinfonia [0.56]
11. Theodora: O thou bright sun! [0:33]
12. With darkness deep as is my woe [4:05]
13. Symphony of soft musick [1:35]
14. Theodora: But why art thou disquieted [0:31]
15. O that I on wings could rise [3:18]
Sinfonie, accompanied recitatives, and airs from Act II, Scene 2 of the three-act oratorio Theodora, HWV 68 (1750)
Philip HAYES (1738-1797)
16. Parthenope: Soon arrives thy fatal hour* [8:02]
Air from Act I of the two-act masque Telemachus (1763-66)
George Frideric HANDEL
17. Pleasure: There the brisk sparkling nectar drain [2:43]
Air from Scene 1 of the one-act oratorio The Choice of Hercules, HWV 69 (1751)
18. Iphis: Ye sacred priests [0:41]
19. Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods [5:36]
Accompanied recitative and air from Act III, Scene 1 of the three-act oratorio Jephtha, HWV 70 (1752)
20. Queen of Sheba: Will the sun forget to streak [5:49]
Air from Act III of the three-act oratorio Solomon, HWV 67 (1749)
Stated as première recordings*