Philips Trio 473 955-2 PTR3
Recorded in 1978.
First LP release in 1979.
First CD release in 1994.
Reissued in 2003.
Ariodante: Janet Baker
Ginevra: Edith Mathis
Dalinda: Norma Burrowes
Polinesso: James Bowman
Lurcanio: David Rendall
Il Re di Scozia: Samuel Ramey
Odoardo: Alexander Oliver
English Chamber Orchestra (on modern instruments)
Conductor: Raymond Leppard
Raymond Leppard was one of the first major conductors to develop an interest in baroque opera, although a British reviewer of this reissue recently lamented that Leppard ‘stuck his head in the sand and stopped learning’ at about the time this recording was made. I think this verdict is rather harsh. Ariodante has arguably been better served by recordings than any other of Handel’s major operas, but we cannot avoid the fact that Leppard’s sounds dated in comparison to Nicholas McGegan’s (Harmonia Mundi) or Marc Minkowski’s (DG).
However, I cannot bring myself to condemn a performance that has such ample power to excite and move any listener willing to give it a chance. As with Leppard’s recording of Samson made at around the same time, his plain approach to ornamentation and lumbering recitatives are examples of how things have arguably improved for the better in the last two decades. But his shaping of Handel’s orchestral writing, especially the intelligent ritornellos, are consistently satisfying and meaty. For example, Polinesso’s aria ‘Dover, giustizia’ springs with colourful sarcasm. Each aria is excellently characterised, and consequently there is a tangible sense of drama in this Ariodante. Listeners accustomed to period instruments will find a great deal to enjoy in the English Chamber Orchestra’s contribution if they can adjust their ears to a slightly different texture.
Most of all, the sheer quality of almost all the singing is evidence that not everything new and popular in present Handel opera performances is an automatic improvement upon the old. Janet Baker’s Ariodante is still exemplary, and other recordings featuring Lorraine Hunt and Anne Sofie von Otter (both superb) have not eclipsed her magnificent performance. Baker’s breathtaking ‘Scherza infida’ gets to the heart of the character’s bitter rejection with compelling results. ‘Numi! Lasciarmi vivere’ at the opening of Act III is an imposing statement full of grandeur and portentuous feeling. Just in case you imagine this performance to be old fashioned and too worthy for its own good, the sprightly and innately musical interpretation of ‘Dopo notte’ proves that Leppard and Baker get the more athletic joyful side of Handel’s opera across with equal assuredness.
The rest of the cast is an exemplary team. Few will prefer Edith Mathis’s Ginvera to Minkowski’s Lynne Dawson, but she characterises the role efficiently and gets around the music (almost). Norma Burrowes is simply wonderful as Dalinda. The young James Bowman is a dislikable Polinesso (which is, of course, the whole point), and it is good to hear a bass of Samuel Ramey’s quality as Ginevra’s father. David Rendall is an effective and ballsy Lurcanio.
In conclusion, this Ariodante can still hold its head up alongside recent excellent recordings by McGegan and Minkowski. At budget price, this reissue is a bargain well worth acquiring. Anybody happy to listen to a Handel opera featuring a traditional orchestra will be thoroughly pleased. Those who prefer period instruments but are willing to give this is a chance ought to find themselves surprised, refreshed, and chastened. I certainly was.
© David Vickers - September 2003
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