The Handel Institute
The Handel Institute

Handel Arias

Artworks (AWO29)
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2001.
Released in 2001.

  • Alcina: 'Tornami a vagheggiar'
  • Giulio Cesare:
    • Overture
    • 'Non disperar, chi sa?'
    • Sinfonia from Act 2
    • 'V’adoro pupille'
    • 'Piangero, la sorte mia'
    • 'Da tempeste il legno infranto'
  • Rinaldo
    • Overture
    • 'Combatti da forte'
    • Sinfonia from Act 1
    • 'Lascia ch’io pianga'
    • 'Bel piacere'

Emma Matthews, soprano
New Zealand Chamber Orchestra (on modern instruments)
Donald Armstrong, director

Emma Matthews, who started her career in Perth (Western Australia) as Emma Lysons, is now one of the brightest stars in the southern operatic skies.  She has appeared with Opera Australia in many lyric soprano roles, including Ilia in Idomeneo, Hero in Béatrice et Bénédict, Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Zwaante in the 2001 Australian opera Batavia, and scored a spectacular success in the Sydney Festival’s Mitridate earlier this year.  In her first recording, she concentrates on Handel heroines, including Morgana and Almirena, whom she has portrayed on stage, and Cleopatra, which seems to be a new assumption with this disc.

The somewhat unexpected involvement of a New Zealand band has come about following Matthews’ tour of that country with the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra, an “independently managed division” of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. They cover the same wide repertorial range as Matthews, from baroque to modern, using modern instruments, other than a harpsichord and a viola da gamba in the Sinfonia-V’adoro pupille section.  Nevertheless, their Handelian sensibilities here are impeccable, with well-chosen tempi and virtually vibrato-free strings.

Matthews’ voice is to a large extent the sort of voice one expects in this repertoire, pure and flexible, but with rather more colours than is often the case with someone who can hit a high F with ease (and while holding Indian dance-type postures, as she did in Mitridate). 

While Handel might be obvious territory, Cleopatra’s arias in particular are a brave choice, bringing as they do inevitable comparison with all those preceding divas who have recorded them; one can start with Sutherland, and move along through Seefried, Popp, Caballe, Auger, Masterson and on to Sills, and of course compatriot Yvonne Kenny.   Matthews stands up well to the comparison in most cases, getting into her conception of Cleopatra as a “sensuous, mischievous and demanding woman” (liner notes).  'Tornami a vagheggiar' is also much associated with Dame Joan, and it is an interesting comparison.  At times Matthews’ diction sounds a little suspect, but listening closely suggests it is just the letter “t” of which she has an idiosyncratic pronunciation, rather like Ewa Podles’s lisp which no one ever mentions.  Perhaps most rewarding are the arias from Rinaldo, a role with which Matthews is thoroughly conversant.  In all cases however it can be said that Matthews brings her own interpretations to bear, with appropriate and individual ornamentations.

There are three complaints one might make.  Firstly, the recording is very short, at 45.49 minutes.  Secondly, some of those precious minutes are taken up with instrumental playing.  This is something of a tradition with Australian vocal baroque CDs, and not a particularly welcome one; similar things happen with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s CDs with Graham Pushee, Yvonne Kenny and Andreas Scholl.  Thirdly, the repertoire is, obviously, chosen from within the realms of extreme familiarity.  Given that some forty Handel operas survive, there are a lot of wonderful and less familiar arias out there for singers to choose from, many of them just as delightful or moving as 'Tornami a vaghegiar' or 'Piangero'. 

None of these grizzles however detract from the musical performances on offer, and while recorded Handel aria recitals are becoming as plentiful as Mozart Requiems or Tchaikovsky symphonies, this one is worth acquiring and treasuring.

© Sandra Bowdler

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