Heroes and Heroines

Coro COR16025
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2004.

  • Sinfonia – Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (from Solomon)
  • Queen of Sheba: Recit + Will the sun forget to streak (from Solomon)
  • Entrée des songes agréables (from Alcina)
  • Ruggiero: Verdi prati (from Alcina)
  • Sinfonia to Act 2 (from Ariodante)
  • Ariodante: Recit + Scherza infida (from Ariodante)
  • Sinfonia to Act 2 (from Hercules)
  • Dejanira: Recit + Cease, ruler of the day (from Hercules)
  • Dejanira: Where shall I fly (from Hercules)
  • Sinfonia to Act 3 (from Alcina)
  • Ruggiero: Sta nell’ ircana (from Alcina)
  • Ruggiero: Mi lusingha il dolce affetto (from Alcina)
  • Ariodante: Dopo notte (from Ariodante)

Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano

The Symphony of Harmony and Invention (on period instruments)
Director: Harry Christophers

Here is a recital whose parts add up to a convincing whole and which therefore offers an experience to savour. There’s a brief ‘overture’, a sinfonia from Act 3 of Alcina, and then we get the tremendously uplifting ‘Sta nell’Ircana’, with its punchy horns. Roused to action, we are quieted with the peach of the whole set, ‘Mi lusingha il dolce affetto’, sung with great affection in a voice that caresses every note. Sarah Connolly ravishes the ears in particular with her rich lower register, and this aria gives her plenty of opportunities to bewitch us. What a wonderful aria ‘Mi lusingha’ is, with Connolly exploring every twisting melodic contour as she charms her listener.

The whole recital is a seminar in breath-taking vocal technique (all right, I’ll say it: this is sexy singing). The vocal synchromesh of this singer effects smooth gear-changes. In the lollipop Solomon Act 3 sinfonia we hear, at last, the double oboes’ counter-melodies (if only Handel had written the rest of this potential double oboe concerto...), prior to an air that is tremendously difficult to make convincing when out of its context, ‘Will the sun forget to streak’. This is arguably the most plangently nostalgic air that Handel ever wrote, and its heart-stopping quality in Solomon relies on the stark contrast with the magnificent choral pageant that precedes it. On this disc it is sung ‘straight’, and its excellence is barely diminished.  

I remember all too well the buffet-bar reactions to the first staged London revival of Ariodante: ‘It lacks drama’ (I kid you not), ‘I miss the ensembles of real opera’, and so on. If ever there were any need to justify a revival nowadays, then ‘Scherza infida’ alone gives just cause. This must be the finest recording of it I have heard; particularly enjoyable is the speed at which the conductor Harry Christophers takes it, slow, almost dangerously slow. The measured pace permits Connolly to introduce a riveting personation of stung betrayal. For once, the da capo to this aria is not a penance but a fine example of singing that the hearer does not want to stop. Yes, this is show-stopping singing, which is exactly what Handel requires.  ‘Dopo notte’, by contrast, is a workmanlike performance. Perhaps Connolly hasn’t the finest trill, a decoration that is essential when singing Handel, but she uses to perfection her ability to make runs seem effortlessness. ‘Verdi prati’ (Alcina) has become a party piece, which is what it is here. 

But then we get to the real stuff for which Handel, with Connolly’s help on this disc, is at last gaining acknowledgment: the dramatic scena, a world away from the formal delights of the da capo aria. There is still much talk in music schools of Gluck’s ‘reforms’ of opera. Handelians know that Gluck learned much from Handel, who, when the two composers met, had abandoned opera seria for the looser and more intensely dramatic form of music-drama in English. ‘Cease, ruler of the day, to rise’ was never performed by Handel (it was re-written as the masterly final chorus of Theodora). Perhaps the words were too near a curse for Handel to retain it, but it exposes how Dejanira convinces herself of her husband’s adultery, the effects of which are all too apparent in the scena which follows on the disc. ‘Where shall I fly’ is an astonishing piece of dramatic music, whether heard on stage or on disc. Is this the finest portrait of frenzy in all music? I am convinced it is on the basis of Connolly’s performance alone.  

Overall, though generally the da capo sections offer great pleasure, Connolly’s decoration, for me, sometimes exceeds decorum --- Handel’s decorations only exceeded the tessitura by a semi-tone. Decoration is a matter of taste, so I shall not name the locations where I think there have been aurally painful infringements. Suffice it to say that it is for Connolly’s passion and commitment to the music that I have no hesitation in thoroughly recommending this disc. It is the most successful recital I have heard for many a year.

© Les Robarts - October 2004

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