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Didone abbandonata - Cantatas & Arias
Sunhae Im (soprano)
Teatro del monto/Andreas Küppers (harpsichord, organ)
rec. 2018, Sendesaal Bremen
Sung texts with German and English translations enclosed
CPO 555 243-2 [59:08]

South Korean soprano Sunhae Im, now in her mid-forties, has been one of the leading lyric sopranos, primarily in Baroque and Classicism music. I first came across her fifteen years ago when I reviewed Haydn’s Die Schöpfung in a period instrument recording from Naxos. I ended up selecting that set as one of my five Records of the Year and have frequently returned to it during the intervening years. Other recordings have also crossed my road and become favourites, for instance René Jacob’s superb Don Giovanni, where she was a lovely Zerlina, and Andreas Spering’s Siroe by Handel, which actually was recorded earlier than Die Schöpfung.
On this new disc she explores some of the many operas, cantatas and other works that have depicted the tragic episode about Dido, Queen of Carthage, who fell in love with Aeneas and was left behind when he travelled to Rome. The proud Dido was of course humiliated and ended up throwing herself in the flames of the burning Carthage. The original is found in Vergil’s Aeneid but it was the famous Pietro Metastasio who wrote the libretto that was first set by Domenico Sarro and premiered in Naples on 1 February 1724, and later set to music more than sixty times. The nine excerpts recorded here combine to create a comprehensive picture of the distraught queen’s broodings. The composers are in the main fairly peripheral in music history books but in their own time several of them were important. Some of them are still remembered: Johann Adolph Hasse, who was a close friend of Metastasio and married to one of the most famous female singers of the day, Faustina Bordoni. He is also said to have met Johann Sebastian Bach in Dresden when the latter probably was present at the premiere of Hasse’s arguably greatest opera, Cleofide. Leonardo Vinci (1690 – 1730) – not to be confused with Leonardo da Vinci, creator of Mona Lisa, who was born almost 200 years earlier – was one of the most prominent Italian opera composers in the early 18th century and a rival to Handel. His last opera, Artaserse (the libretto by Metastasio), which was played all over Europe, was hailed as ‘the most celebrated Italian opera’, and there exists a superb recording of it with five of the greatest present-day counter-tenors and the magnificent Daniel Behle as the odd man out. Jommelli and Porpora are not completely forgotten either, but the rest of the names may well be new to many readers.

But that doesn’t mean that the music is uninteresting. On the contrary this is highly attractive music, inventive, beautiful, dramatic and often virtuosic. The opening aria by Hasse, full of sorrow and yearning, takes us straight into Dido’s predicament. The listener feels sorry for the queen and the singing is as beautiful as it was when I first encountered Sunhae Im. She embellishes tastefully – her technique was always so matter-of-fact, so free from flashiness. In Sarro’s aria the tempest is beginning to rise, rhythms are intense, tempo high, the strings are treated as percussion instruments – and the singing is highly dramatic. Anger permeates Ristori’s aria and Dido lets loose cascades of coloratura. Faggioli’s Didone-Kantate is another burst of emotions after the harp introduction: short recitative – aria – long recitative – aria. Sunhae Im’s crystal clear tones are compelling. So is also Vinci’s aria, which arguably is the highspot on this disc. It opens with a recorder solo by Barbara Heindlmeier and the aria then develops to a duet with the soprano – a real tour de force for both soloists.

The structure of Jommelli’s cantata is aria – recitative – aria with the recitative accompanied by harp. The arias are full of intensity and the second aria in particular is a dramatic whirlwind. For a change Venier’s aria, which doesn’t seem to stem from an opera, is a da capo aria with some really virtuosic violin playing and it is certainly operatic. In Porpora’s cantata we hear a Lautencembalo, or Lute Harpsichord in the recitatives. The instrument is similar to a harpsichord but has gut strings instead of metal strings, which gives it a softer sound. Johann Sebastian Bach owned two such instruments and is believed to have composed his lute suits for the instrument. Sarro returns with a second aria from his Didone abbandonata, a very beautiful largo, and as a conclusion we get another largo, this time from Tartini’s violin concerto in A major. Tartini wrote a violin sonata, titled Didone abbandonata, and in the autograph of the concerto is a handwritten sentence under the score: In streams, in fountains, and in rivers, flow, bitter tears, until my cruel grief has been washed away – words that for sure can be related to Dido. Concert master Hongxia Cui plays it beautifully and thus adds further importance to this full size portrait of the unhappy Dido.

The playing of Teatro del mondo is full-blooded and assured, rhythmically taut and the singing is throughout superb. None of the pieces are standard fare, but each and every one is a minor master piece and a perfect foil for Sunhae Im’s vocalism. A disc to savour for everyone who loves vocal baroque music.

Göran Forsling

Johann Adolph HASSE (1699 – 1783)
1. Aria Ombra cara from the opera Didone abbandonata [9:07]
Domenico SARRO (1679 – 1744)
2. Aria Già si la tempesta from the opera Didone abbandonata [2:29]
Giovanni Alberto RISTORI (1692 – 1752)
3. Aria Quante volte from Didone, Componimento drammatico [6:08]
Michelangelo FAGGIOLI (1666 – 1733)
4. Didone-Kantate [8:19]
Leonardo VINCI (1690 – 1730)
5. Aria Prende ardire from the opera Didone abbandonata [3:09]
Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714 – 1774)
6. Cantata Didone abbandonata [9:51]
Girolamo VENIER (1650 – 1735)
7. Aria Son Regina [4:06]
Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686 – 1768)
8. Cantata Abbandonatae sola [9:59]
Domenico SARRO
9. Aria Vado, ma Dove from the opera Didone abbandonata [2:24]
Giuseppe TARTINI (1692 – 1770)
10. 2nd movement Largo andante from Violin Concerto D. 96 in A major [3:30]

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