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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Handelian Pyrotechnics
William Towers (countertenor), Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
rec. St Mark’s Church, Leamington Spa, 5 to 6 November 2019
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
Reviewed as downloaded from Hyperion

“Handelian Pyrotechnics” the CD-cover says, and any unsuspecting reader should be excused for concluding that here we are in for a programme of coloratura equilibristics. But the title is deceptive. Out of eleven arias only three belong in the pyrotechnical category. But this is no great loss. Anything Handel wrote is worth a listen, and here we are treated to an agreeable mix of various feelings in arias both fast and slow, sung by the up-and-coming British counter-tenor William Towers. He got an opportunity to record a Handel disc quite early in his career but turned it down, since he had then only sung a couple of Handel roles on stage. Today he has a lot of experience in the Handelian repertoire, and all the arias on this disc are from roles he has sung on stage, some of them many times in various productions.

And we start as far away from pyrotechnics as is possible, with probably the best-known aria by Handel, Ombra mai fu from Serse. It is the main character in the opera, the Persian King Serse (or Xerxes as his name was in the original) who at the very beginning of the opera sings the aria to a plane tree to thank it “for furnishing him with shade” as Wikipedia puts it in their synopsis. As presumably every reader knows it is a slow, beautiful song with a melody that easily lends it to religious meditations – and the aria has often been performed at funerals – but the content is, in fact, profane. Beautifully sung it is.

The next aria, from Poro, is likewise a meditation. There are some discreet embellishments in the reprise, but nothing spectacular. There follow two arias from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, and in the first, Al lampo dell’armi, the text says: “The soldier’s foremost thought in battle is to strike the enemy first …”, and even without knowing the music one realises that here, with sabre-rattling coming up, must be a perfect moment for pyrotechnics. And so it turns out to be. It is an up-tempo aria with intense string accompaniment – and a great deal of coloratura, expertly negotiated. The second aria, Dall’ondoso periglio – Aure, deh, per pietÓ, is also from the battlefield, but here the hero is at a loss, and he meditates on his situation: Where are the soldiers? He only sees arms and corpses scattered.

Caro sposa is the hero’s slow and beautiful longing for his wife. This long aria is from Rinaldo, Handel’s break-through in London in 1711. There is a fast middle section but it only lasts a few seconds. In Cielo! Se tu il consenti from Orlando, premiered in 1733, we encounter the title character, who is none else than Ariosti’s Orlando furioso, who went mad of love for a foreign princess. Madness is often a reason to burst into coloratura singing, and here we get a fair share of breakneck virtuosity.

The best known aria from Rodelinda is no doubt Dove sei, where Bertarido, the former King of Lombardy, longs for his wife Rodelinda. It is a touching love song.

From Radamisto we are served by two slow and beautiful songs, both melodic gems, to return to and savour. Qual nave smarrita may be the brightest shining of the two, but the sorrowful Ombra cara has its own beauty. Both are sung with care and inwardness. And so is Tacer˛, purchŔ fedele from Agrippina, possibly Handel’s first great opera, composed while he was still in Italy, and predecessor to Rinaldo.

And so we arrive at Ottone, re di Germania, an opera first heard in 1723. Handel had assembled a star-studded cast, including castrato Senesino and soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, both of them for the first time appearing in London. Cuzzoni knew that Handel had written Ottone before he engaged her and thus she thought he couldn’t know her capacity, and consequently she wanted him to write a new aria for her that showed her off in the best possible light. Handel went furious, grabbed Cuzzoni by the waist and told her that he would throw her out of the window if she persisted. Cuzzoni gave in and sang the aria Handel had written – and it was a great success. After that she sang it in recital throughout her career.

What we hear here is not Cuzzoni’s aria but one of Ottone’s, and that role was sung by Senesino, who continued to appear in another seventeen of Handel’s operas. The aria Dopo l’orrore rounds off the programme with some pyrotechnics and colourful orchestral accompaniment. Elegant, effortless singing by William Towers – whether he could have challenged Senesino is a moot point, since there naturally exists no documentation and written testimonies are hard to interpret. What we know is that the awakened interest in baroque music, not least opera, has changed the musical scene considerably. Seventy years ago Alfred Deller was practically the only falsetto singer of stature; today we have a plethora of excellent singers in this voice category.

Baroque authority Harry Bicket recently wrote in the liner notes for the brand-new recording of Rodelinda, that it is easier in the twenty-first century to cast a Handel opera well than a Verdi opera. To judge from the present disc William Towers seems well endowed to further strengthen the appeal of the countertenor breed. The accompaniment of Armonico Consort under Christopher Monk also contributes to the value of this issue – and, of course, the music of Handel. I can’t get enough of his music, especially his operatic music. I know that I’m not the only one who feels that way. If you too are a Handel enthusiast: don’t hesitate! If you are not: try it anyway!

G÷ran Forsling

Xerxes, HWV 40:
1. Ombra mai fu [3:11]
Poro, re dell’Indie, HWV 28:
2. Se possono tanto due luci vezzose [5:45]
Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17:
3. Al lampo dell’armi [3:17]
4. Dall’ondoso periglio – Aure, deh, per pietÓ [7:31]
Rinaldo, HWV 7:
5. Caro sposa [8:24]
Orlando, HWV 31:
6. Cielo! Se tu il consenti [4:33]
Rodelinda, regina de’Longobardi, HWV 19:
7. Dove sei [4:44]
Radamisto, HWV 12:
8. Qual nave smarrita [6:12]
9. Ombra cara [7:44]
Agrippina, HWV 6:
10. Tacer˛, purchŔ fedele [4:28]
Ottone, re di Germania, HWV 15:
11. Dopo l’orrore  [4:56]

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