~ HWV 20 ~
Fnac Music 592245
Recorded in 1993.
Released in 1994.
Scipione: Derek Lee Ragin
Berenice: Sandrine Piau
Lucejo: Doris Lamprecht
Ernando: Olivier Lallouette
Armira: Vanda Tabery
Lelio: Guy Flechter
Les Talens Lyriques (on period instruments)
Director: Christophe Rousset
The sole reign of the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni as Handel’s prima donna at the Royal Academy of Music began with Ottone re di Germania in 1723. It reached its end with Alessandro, created in May 1726 after the arrival of the other big name of European singing in that time, Faustina Bordoni. Scipione was created two months earlier, before the rivalry between the two sopranos erased the rivalry between characters played by the two alto castratos Antonia Baldi (Scipione) and Francesco Bernardi (Lucejo), aka il Senesino.
Scipione is composed with a libretto by Antonio Salvi (1704), and was adapted for Handel by Paolo Antonio Rolli. It deals with rivalry over love between the two castratos, set in the context of the conquest of the Iberian peninsula by Publius Cornelius Scipio around 210 B.C. The overture is followed by a march, and the opera opens with a spectacular triumph scene – a good occasion to infringe the supposed rule according to which the main character is not supposed to sing at the very beginning of an opera seria. It must have seemed a good occasion for Handel to explore original forms, as Scipione sings an arioso which finally appears to be a da capo aria with a dialogue recitative between its A and B sections (so its form is A/recitative/B/A). Furthermore, it is worth noting, considering the confrontation of the two castratos, that the beginning of the opera, dominated by Scipione, is balanced by the end of the third act due to Lucejo dominating the rest of the opera, and it is the latter who eventually wins the hand of Berenice but has to swear allegiance to Scipione. Thus, both on musical and dramatic points of view, the balance between the two castratos is perfectly managed, probably better than the confrontations of the two star sopranos in later operas – but it is certainly easier to manage a rivalry between male characters, one being granted with the love of the prima donna, and the other with power. Anyway, the result is that Scipione works perfectly well from a dramatic point of view.
From a musical point of view, the music is often gorgeous, with beautiful arias and several accompanied recitatives – one being a meditation of Scipione about power, desire and virtue (Act III scene I). The celebrated ‘Scoglio d’immota fronte’ is an aria sung by Berenice at the end of Act II. It is a tempest aria, but not one in which the character is subjected to the raging elements. Here, Berenice compares herself to a rock and faces the raging elements with assurance. Thus it is a perfect occasion for the singer for a vocal fireworks without being contradictory to the dramaturgy of the work. On the contrary, the end of Act II is certainly the best moment for it.
Another of the numerous highlights is ‘Se mormora rivo o fronda’, Scipione’s magnificent pastoral lamentation (with flute, Act III scene 2). This beautiful work is here served by excellent interpreters. Guy Flechter is inadequate and sometimes really painful to listen to, and probably did not enjoy singing the part of Lelio. Furthermore, tempi could have been slightly more contrasted and possessed a little bit more grandeur in Doris Lamprecht’s performance. But for those flaws, this recording could have simply resulted in 174 minutes of pure musical, vocal and dramatic pleasure. Sandrine Piau’s and Derek Lee Ragin’s performances are particularly notable. The American countertenor offers here one of the best performances of a countertenor heard in a Handel opera recording. Sandrine Piau is perfectly at her ease from the beautiful Sicilienne at the end of the first scene to the end of the work, and particularly in ‘Scoglio d’immota fronte’. Her frequent high notes are probably not totally idiomatic but the pleasure felt by the listener is totally ‘authentic’.
Unfortunately this indispensable recording is not available any longer as the Fnac Music label disappeared some years ago. Not only the recording is excellent, but the packaging was quite beautiful and original (although slightly fragile). The main problem with such releases was probably that the selling price was particularly high, a criterion that was probably responsible for the failure of this label. However, we do hope that another recording label will be able to re-issue it.
© Philippe Gelinaud - May 2004
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