Handel Arias

Avie Records
Hybrid Super Audio AV0030
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2003 & 2004.
Released in 2004.

  • Theodora (HWV 68):
    • “Ah! wither should we fly ... As with rosy steps the dawn”
    • “O bright example! ... Bane of virtue, nurse of passions”
    • “The clouds begin to veil the hemisphere ... Defend her Heav’n!”
    • “Lord, to Thee each night and day”
    • “She’s gone, disdaining liberty and life ... New scenes of joy” 
  • La Lucrezia (HWV 145)*  
  • Serse (HWV 40):
    • “Se bramate d’amar”
    • “Frondi tenere e belle ... Ombra mai fù”

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano

*Stephen Stubbs, lute and baroque guitar
*Phoebe Carrai, violoncello
*Margriet Tindemans, viola da gamba
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (on period instruments)
Conductor: Harry Bickett, harpsichord and chamber organ

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson came to singing late, following a career as a violist, in which she often played with groups performing contemporary works.  She initially received widespread attention as a vocalist performing in Handel operas, notably Peter Sellars’ Giulio Cesare in 1992, Ariodante with Nicholas McGegan in 1995, and Theodora at Glyndebourne in 1996 (also Sellars), a significant production for many reasons.  She recorded several works by Handel with McGegan in the early 1990s, and for these reasons has come to be thought of as a “Handel singer”, or at least as something of a baroque specialist.  This is somewhat of a misapprehension however, as she has sung over a stylistic and chronological range of material, and resists cataloguing as a niche artist in this sense.  She has however admitted to an affinity with Handel’s music, and this recording demonstrates that.

In the Glyndebourne Theodora, Hunt Lieberson took the part of Irene, the heroine’s friend and supporter, but it may be noted that she had previously sung the name part on the McGegan recording of this work.  This recording includes all five of Irene’s arias, all of which are statements of profound faith as Theodora, an early Christian, is singled out for persecution by the Romans.  While this might seem at odds with the cantata La Lucrezia, composed considerably earlier in Handel’s career, it also depicts a woman subjected to violation, in this case a Roman woman. The original story can be regarded as Roman propaganda against the Etruscans, but it might be noted that Britten’s version of it (The Rape of Lucretia), in which Hunt Lieberson has performed, has a distinctly Christian reading.  These two works together make an interesting pairing. With respect to Theodora, the order of the arias as they occur in the oratorio has been altered somewhat, in that the first two are reversed.  One reason for this might be that “As with rosy steps the morn” contains the same metaphor as “New scenes of joy”, and thus bookend the other arias.

More puzzling is the inclusion of two arias from Serse, another role which Hunt Lieberson has performed to acclaim.  One rage aria and the not exactly rare “Ombra mai fù” do not on their own give a great deal of insight into her interpretation, and one can only hope for a future recording of the whole opera or at least a better sampling.  This is not to say they are not extremely well sung. Hunt Lieberson has been described as a great “singing actress”, which is of course true, but there is often an implication with such a description that drama is emphasised either at the expense of the music, or that the singer in question is compensating for an inferior instrument with dramatic overdrive. In Hunt Lieberson’s case, nothing could be further from the truth.  She has a particularly distinctive and beautiful mezzo voice, even and accurate across its range, which has expanded significantly since her early singing days.  Originally performing as a soprano with a perceived short top, she has settled comfortably into the lower range, with an increased command of her lower notes.  She is also, as might be expected, a consummate musician, and despite performing with great dramatic intensity, manages to do so within the bounds of the particular musical idiom within which she happens to be working.  Each item of the current selection is given equal attention with respect to expression and musicality.  Her diction is impeccable in English and Italian, and every nuance is drawn out of the text, but also from the music; her decorations flow from the drama and feeling of each piece, rather than being opportunities for display.  One can note how she caresses the words in the final cadenza of “As with rosy steps the morn”, and the gleaming highlight brought to bear on the words “bane” and “prosperity” in the anti-capitalist paean “Bane of virtue”.  If one were to make a technical criticism, it might be that there are occasions when she obviously draws a breath during some of the extended cadenzas.

Hunt Lieberson is more than adequately supported in this venture by a team of baroque specialists. La Lucrezia boasts a classy continuo section featuring Stephen Stubbs, Phoebe Carrai and Margriet Tindemans (and of course Harry Bicket). Along with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the instrumentalists are attentive to every nuance of the score and the texts.  The sound quality of the recording is also very high. There might be some who find this level of intensity somehow un-Handelian, and if they prefer a more emotionally contained approach, there are plenty of alternative recordings for this repertoire (Susan Bickley or Juliette Galstian as Irene on the McCreesh and Christie Theodora recordings respectively; Veronique Gens, Eva Mei, Gerard Lesne, Magdalena Kozena for La Lucrezia).  Compared to Hunt Lieberson’s all out emotional commitment, combined with her musical sensitivity, however, they all sound rather pallid.

© Sandra Bowdler - July 2004

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