Aci, Galatea e Polifemo
~ HWV 72 ~
Virgin Veritas 5 45557-2
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2003.
Aci: Sandrine Piau, soprano
Galatea: Sara Mingardo, alto
Polifemo: Laurent Naouri, bass
Le Concert d'Astreé (on period instruments)
Director: Emmanuelle Haïm
Handel’s ‘Neapolitan’ Aci, a wedding serenata composed in 1708 and only loosely related to his later treatments of the same subject (HWV 49a and 49b), cannot be dismissed as a ‘juvenile’ or ‘minor’ work. On the contrary, it is gloriously Handelian throughout, and so is Emmanuelle Haïm’s rendering of it as recorded during the last five days of 2002 at Altfortville, France, for Virgin Veritas. It would be much easier (and shorter) to review its shortcomings, notably a slightly blurred Italian diction from two excellent vocalists such as Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo, or the haphazard introduction of an organ in the continuo section, or a few overextended final cadenzas with strange harmonic liberties, such as in Aci’s aria “Qui l’augel di pianta in pianta”. Also questionable is the delivery of Galatea’s “Benché tuoni”, whose flamboyant passagework at breath-taking speed fails to convey the triumphantly warlike mood intended both in text lines and in the score, veering rather into generic frenzy.
Yet, with all proper reservation, this Aci is by far one of the freshest and most authentic Handel recordings in decades. Le Concert d’Astrée includes remarkable soloists much needed in a colourful score like this, where extended obbligato parts are the rule. Haïm (a virtuoso harpsichordist at that) leads them with an astonishingly wide variety of tempi, also integrating vocal and instrumental lines in such a tight way that goes well beyond the notion of ‘accompaniment’. She has definitely a vision of the score both as a whole and in the detail, and – although one may speculate that she understands extremities of tragic pathos on one side, and Arcadian romance on the other, much better than mid-tones of irony and 18th-century allusions – her Aci is solidly cast in drama, vigour and phantasy.
In doing so, she is much helped (and to some extent perhaps forced on) by a stellar cast of singers. Mingardo as Galatea is more elegiac and less energetic than one would expect from her written role; her strong points are slow, nobly plaintive arias such as “Sforzano a piangere” and “Se m’ami, o caro”, giving relief to the unique polish of her natural alto voice. To restore the balance, Piau is much more than the warbling and subdued shepherd boy stipulated by Handel and his librettist Nicola Giuvo (whose credit is duly restored in Anthony Hicks’s learned liner notes). Her “Che non può la gelosia”, just to quote one instance out of many, is a fiendish showpiece of coloratura skill, vocally as nuanced as one may expect from her. Laurent Naouri gives an admirable performance as Polifemo: although his lowest notes lack sometimes crisp definition, the overall sentiment and quality of his voice is so good that it does not really bother. His highest register, stretching from light baritone to tenor, does so rather comfortably without the peculiar squeaking which often affects his colleagues while performing this most dangerous role, featuring terrific leaps within a range of two octaves and a fifth. His “Tra l’ombre e gli orrori” strikes delirious notes within an amazingly slow lilt; when a climactic mood is reached in the rarefied final cadenza, one has a clear perception of what a Baroque notion like ‘delightful horror’ may actually mean. To say nothing of his outraged ejaculations during the lovers’ duet “Dolce/ caro amico amplesso”: a great performance for a first-rate dramatic piece, comparable to nothing else in opera history but to Verdi’s quartet “Bella figlia dell’amor” in Rigoletto, or to Mozart’s “E nel tuo/ nel mio bicchiero” from Così fan tutte.
© Carlo Vitali - July 2003
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