~ HWV 41 ~

CPO 999 915-2
2 CDs
full price
Recorded (studio) in 2002.
Released in 2004.

Imeneo: Kay Stiefermann, bass
Tirinto: Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano
Rosmene: Johanna Stojkovic, soprano
Clomiri: Siri Karoline Thornhill, soprano
Argenio: Locky Chung, bass

VokalEnsemble Köln
Capella Augustina (on period instruments)
Conductor: Andreas Spering




Imeneo is one of Handel’s shortest operas, and is a complete performance only requires two modestly filled discs. Its plot relates more to a cantata such as Clori, Tirsi e Filneo than any grand opera like Giulio Cesare. However, it is also fair to observe that Imeneo shares the same librettist and atmosphere as Partenope and Serse.[1] All three operas contain the same examination of love and fidelity, and each inspired Handel to compose notably original and dramatic music. It is often considered that Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda form one great trilogy of Handel operas, while Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina form another. I believe that Partenope, Serse, and Imeneo form an equally brilliant and impressive trilogy that stands beside its more heroic or magical siblings. 

Handel’s penultimate opera in Italian was performed on 22nd November 1740 at the small Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, and it is possible that it was set entirely within a simple garden scene. Nevertheless, the performances of Imeneo were the product of a lengthy and protracted composition and revision process that had started two years before. After completing its first draft in 1738, featuring a tenor version of the title role presumably composed for John Beard, Handel became diverted by works such as Saul and L’Allegro. Indeed, music composed for the original draft of Imeneo was recycled in works performed before the opera was eventually produced. The observant listener can spot excellent Imeneo music that was clearly Handel’s inspiration for famous moments in more celebrated works. Tirinto’s aria ‘Se potessero i sospir miei’ was clearly the model for David’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ despite Saul being composed and performed while Imeneo remained a work in progress. The same character’s showstopping aria ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’ was obviously the seed for ‘Why do the nations’ composed for Messiah soon afterwards. 

There is a vast amount of autograph draft material related to Imeneo that was composed at various stages between 1738 and 1740, and the matter was further complicated by Handel’s Dublin version that was performed with the title ‘Hymen’ in 1742 by a small cast.[2] Due to the confusing state of all the sources, the most coherent version of the opera that Handel eventually prepared for performance has only recently been published for the first time in a new HHA edition prepared by Donald Burrows. All previous recordings have been substantially inaccurate in their text, and in some cases extremely disappointing with regards to the quality of performance. 

This new recording uses the HHA edition, and it is therefore a welcome and long overdue ‘accurate’ representation of a seriously neglected masterpiece. At last we can hear a recording of Imeneo that grants the aria di bravura ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’ to the correct character and voice pitch: I have become fed up with hearing the bass Imeneo singing this aria for little better reason than the music’s similarity to ‘Why do the nations’, and its restoration to the soprano (castrato) Tirinto is a triumph of dramatic and musical sense. Ann Hallenberg, who is excellent throughout, delivers this phenomenal aria with passion and fury, and a wonderfully intelligent brief cadenza. For this aria alone, CPO and Andreas Spering deserve enormous credit. 

However, Imeneo is a particularly lovely opera, and I am not convinced that quality is sufficiently evident in this performance. Many of the arias are intended to be affectionate and gentle, but Spering does not follow this aesthetic. He instead drives ritornellos hard, rushes the choruses, and leaves little room for emotion or drama. The singing is of a very high standard, and the use of short cadenzas and judicious ornamentation is pleasing, but none of the cast get into character enough to make the drama as compelling as it should have been. Rosmene’s feigned madness is unconvincing, and the difficult choice she has to make between her rescuer Imeneo and her true love Imeneo is less than riveting in this performance. One could argue that Handel never intended it to be convincing: after all, Imeneo is hardly a hero for having disguised himself as a girl and slaughtering pirates in their sleep, and the fickle Rosmene does choose the ‘wrong’ man according to conventional operatic wisdom. Yet Spering’s performance could have at least attempted to sound as if the final decision matters. In essence, this performance is literal rather than lyrical. 

Handel’s modest scoring demands only oboes, strings, and continuo. I do not understand why Spering has decided to depart from this by frequently adding recorders to the violin line. It is historically implausible, and detracts from what could have otherwise been a notably accurate performance. Similarly to the lack of storytelling, these small flaws lessen my pleasure in what could have been a truly great recording. As it stands, Spering’s Imeneo is an important contribution to the discography that contains enjoyable musical elements. Its importance in allowing us to perceive Imeneo in a semi-scholarly light ought not be underestimated, but I suspect that it is potentially a much finer opera than the recording shows.

[1] Silvio Stampiglia.
[2] It was this Dublin revision that contained the duet ‘Per le porte’ from Sosarme, thus giving rise to the occasional misconception that the duet belongs to Imeneo.

© David Vickers - March 2004

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