La Maga Abbandonata

Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
DHM 74321956442
1 Super Audio CD
(playable on both SACD and CD players)
full price
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2003.

  • Rinaldo (HWV 7a):
    • Fermanti / No, Crudel
    • Dunque I lacci / Ah! Crudel
  • Alcina (HWV 34):
    • Sinfonia
    • Ah, Mio Cor
    • Sta nell'Ircana
    • Verdi prati
    • Ah! Ruggiero crudel / Ombre pallide
  • Amadigi (HWV 11):
    • Sinfonia
    • D'un sventurato amante / Pena tiranna
    • Mi deride / Destero
    • Addio, crudo Amadigi / Io gia sento

Simone Kermes (soprano)
Maite Beaumont (mezzo-soprano)

Reading by Donna Leon
Il Complesso Barocco (on period instruments)
Director: Alan Curtis

Alan Curtis’s pioneering recording of Admeto, now reissued on Virgin Veritas, was a landmark in the modern renaissance of Handel opera (even if its title-role could be sung much better by the countertenors we have nowadays). Then, for decades there was virtual silence, apart from a marvellous highlights disc of Floridante (contrary to myth, a complete recording was not made). Yet in recent years Handel fans have been treated to Curtis’s (almost) complete recordings of Rodrigo and Arminio, and a tantalising recording of Deidamia is due for release in Summer 2003. Curtis also plans to record the first version of Radamisto with Il Complesso Barocco (for release in 2004), and Tolomeo (the following year). There is also another recording of Radamisto – made live at the Halle Handel Festival – due for release soon (on the Mondo Musica label). Now there is also this engaging recital based on the theme “The Abandoned Sorceress”. It seems Curtis is making up for lost time in spectacular fashion.

This particular author is more than willing for this fashion to continue unabated. The approach Curtis takes to the music is always lively and judicious, but importantly is also aligned to the 18th century elegance that evades the work of some of his colleagues. The musical performances on this recital are stylish and persuasive, although – like Lynne Dawson’s recent “My Personal Handel Collection” – the orchestra is in reality a chamber group that occasionally lacks the requisite dynamic strength. Yet even if Il Complesso Barocco is a bit on the small side for the orchestral depth and texture some of these arias really crave for, they play the music expressively and as if they understand exactly what the dramatic situations are. Surprisingly few Handel opera ‘specialists’ manage to mix theatre and musical tastefulness, with a dash of real scholarly authority, but Curtis now – as in the late 1970s – is the benchmark for such an approach.

The two singers on this disc are outstanding. Simone Kermes, familiar to Handel lovers from Peter Neumann’s impressive German recordings of Saul and Belshazzar, and who has recorded the title-role in Curtis’s Deidamia, is a clean and focussed soprano with an incredible high register. Her voice may not be to the taste of everybody, but I personally find it musically captivating and emotionally inspirational. Kermes’s delivery of the texts are consistently well characterised, and it is not difficult to understand why Curtis and his accomplice Donna Leon cast her as the ideal abandoned sorceress found in several of Handel’s ‘magic’ operas. Kermes’s cadenzas are astonishing, but they never interfere with the musical logic of Handel’s composition: “Ombre pallide” is simply stunning, and the personification of Arminda’s grief in “Ah! crudel” is even better. Alcina’s “Ah! mio cor” initially seems a little quick, but it still lasts 9 minutes, and gets the mood of the dramatic context absolutely right. Kermes also handles the coloratura and brighter more extrovert Melissa with panache in “Desterò dall’ empia Dite”: an aria that also features fine oboe and trumpet dialogue that exemplifies the clarity and character of Il Complesso Barocco (and perhaps also reveals the sonic limitations of such a small group playing Handel opera).

The mezzo-soprano Maite Beaumont only contributes three arias. Yet her performance as Ruggerio (Alcina) is fabulous: “Sta nell’ Ircana” adds a splash of colour amid the magical lamentations, while no excuse is really needed for a beautifully sung “Verdi prati” like this. Dardano’s aria “Pena tiranna” from Amadigi does not fit the concept, as it is an expression of his love for Orianna, and not in any way related to the sorceress Melissa. Yet it is a beautiful aria, and neatly performed here.

It is deliciously ironic that this recording was made in Bayreuth, as it would be hard to think of a less Wagnerian experience. The sound quality is especially good, although I listened to this on a conventional CD player, so cannot comment on how it might sound on an SACD player. The bonus track features a reading by Donna Leon from one of her detective novels, which is rendered relevant by an enigmatic reference to “Ombre pallide”. I personally find Leon’s contribution a little superfluous to the music, but it may well bring her readership closer to this thoroughly enjoyable recital, and its theme does lend it a sense of coherence that the usual popular aria anthologies lack. I do not imagine Curtis will run out of Handel projects in the near future, but the evidence on this disc makes me wish that he would turn his full attention to a complete Alcina featuring Kermes and Beaumont.

© David Vickers - May 2003

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