Haendel: Opera Seria

Naïve/Astrée E8894
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2004.

  • Berenice: 'Scoglio d’immota fronte' (from Scipione; HWV 20)
  • Angelica: 'Erbette liete verdi piante' (from Orlando; HWV 31)
  • Cleopatra: 'Che sento oh dio' (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto; HWV 17)
  • Cleopatra: 'Se pietà' (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto; HWV 17)
  • Partenope: 'L'amor ed il destin...' (from Partenope; HWV 27)
  • Melissa: 'Ah spietato' (from Amadigi di Gaula; HWV 11)
  • Rossane: 'Brilla nell'alma un non inteso ancor' (from Alessandro; HWV 21)
  • Rodelinda: 'Ombre piante' (from Rodelinda; HWV 19)
  • Clotilde: 'Combattuta da due venti' (from Faramondo; HWV 39)
  • Deidamia: 'M’ai resa infelice' (from Deidamia; HWV 42)
  • Alceste: 'Son qual stanco pellegrino' (from Arianna in Creta; HWV 32)

Sandrine Piau, soprano
Les Talens Lyriques (on period instruments)
Director: Christophe Rousset

Recital discs of Handel arias have not been exactly rare in the last decade or so, being essayed by all kinds of classical singers, from the early music specialists (Emma Kirkby, Julianne Baird) to the generalists (Renée Fleming, Yvonne Kenny), and not just by sopranos either. We have examples from every fach:  mezzo-soprano (Sarah Connolly, Marilyn Horne, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, Ann Murray), countertenor (James Bowman, David Daniels, Graham Pushee, Andreas Scholl), tenor (David Hobson), baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), bass-baritone (Bryn Terfel) and bass (David Thomas).  Sopranos are probably the best represented;  as well as the afore mentioned, we have CDs from Maria Bayo, Lynne Dawson, Emma Matthews and Ruth Ann Swenson dedicated to Handel alone, and any number featuring two or more Handel arias amongst other composers.  Confronted with such a plethora, and bearing in mind that several of these have appeared within the last two years, the discerning record buyer might well be wondering if yet another soprano singing yet another collection of Handel arias is worth purchasing.

The response must be a resounding yes: indeed, one might almost want to call this new recording by French soprano Sandrine Piau a mandatory acquisition.  There are several reasons for this, of which the first and foremost must be Piau’s stunning vocalism, comprised of a beautiful voice, immaculate technique, consummate musicianship and depth of expression.  This is supported by wonderful playing from Rousset and his band Les Talens Lyriques, excellent recorded sound, helpful presentation, and, far from least, the choice of repertoire.   

Most of the previously mentioned recordings rehearse the most familiar arias from the best-known operas:  'Ombra mai fú', of course, from Serse;  arias from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Semele, Rinaldo, Rodelinda.   Many of them combine arias from operas with airs from oratorios, not that there is anything wrong with that in itself.  But here we have a conscious decision to stick with the Italian operas, and furthermore to stick with those arias written for the soprano voice.  The operas chosen are of the less often heard variety;  indeed some of them will be barely known even to Handel aficionados:  Scipione, Partenope, Amadigi, Alessandro, Faramondo, Deidamia, Arianna in Creta. Even with the better known operas, the arias selected from them avoid the usual: 'Verdi piante' from Orlando, 'Se pietà' from Giulio Cesare (and thankfully not 'Piangerò') and 'Ombre, piante' from Rodelinda.  The program is also thoughtfully scheduled, with lively arias of brilliance ('Scoglio d’immota fronte', 'L’amor ed il destin', 'Brilla nell’alma') contrasted with those of more sombre ('Ombre, piante', 'Se pietà') or reflective ('Verdi piante') hue. 

The liner notes are concise but informative, and we are given not only the placement of each aria in its respective opera, but also the character who sings the role and its original exponent (Cuzzoni, Strada del Po, Pilotti-Schiavonetti, Bordoni, Duparc and the castrato Carlo Scalzi).  Comments on each aria by Philippe Gelinaud deftly situate each aria in its dramatic context and alert us to the musical felicities exemplified in it.  Only the front cover picture presents a slight puzzlement (what is she wearing?), but at least it does seem to be a photo of Piau and not some vacuous model as with many Naïve offerings these days. 

Finally of course there is the singing.  Piau’s pure clean voice might at first hearing suggest the stereotypical “early music” straight-toned sound of the likes of the early Emma Kirkby, but in fact it is able to embody a range of colours, and vibrato is used as a decorative element.  As with all really great art, Piau makes it sound easy, no hint of effort, no suggestion of strain.  She combines seamless legato with dazzling runs of accurate unaspirated coloratura.  Stunning cadenzas sound like spontaneous outbursts of musical passion, such as that at the end of the B section of 'Scoglio d’immota fronte' and of the da capo of 'Brilla nell’alma'.  (It should be noted however that in the notes the da capos are attributed to either Christophe Rousset or Jérôme Correas).  Even what might be considered the least of the proffered items, 'L’amor ed il destin', described by Gellinaud as “short and lightweight”, demands at the very least a high level of technical proficiency, easily achieved here [in fact, this aria contains a rare example of Handel writing a top C - Ed.].  Piau does not however privilege technique over expression, and 'Se pietà' and 'Ombre, piante' are as deeply felt in their pain and mourning as 'Scoglio immota' is defiant and determined and 'M’ai resa infelice' is distressed and angry.  She receives immaculate support from Rousset and the period instruments of Les Talens Lyriques, of which special mention might be made of the gently mournful recorders in 'Verdi piante'. 

There must be something wrong with this recording but I haven’t been able to figure out what it is.

© Sandra Bowdler - December 2004

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