~ HWV 25 ~
Recorded in 1998 by the Opernhaus Halle and released on their private label.
Mondo Musica (Munich)
Re-issued in 2004.
Tolomeo: Axel Köhler
Seleuce: Linda Perillo
Elisa: Romelia Lichtenstein
Arsape: Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Alessandro: Jennifer Lane
Händelfestspielorchester des Opernhauses Halle (on period instruments)
Conductor: Howard Arman
Tolomeo was Handel’s last opera for the Royal Academy of Music (1719-1728), before its administration dissolved into chaos. Contrary to popular myth, the London opera company’s fate was not enforced by financial problems, but instead the proposed 1728-1729 season was cancelled because the company had no singers left and could not hire adequate replacements in time. By the time Handel had recruited a new cast for the 1729-30 season, the new operas Lotario and Partenope were produced under new management: the so-called ‘Second Academy’, which was run by Handel and the King’s Theatre impresario Heidegger.
Tolomeo, like its ‘Rival Queens’ companions Riccardo Primo and Admeto, opens with a stunning scene in which a major character laments their situation: Tolomeo has been exiled from his kingdom by his cruel mother, who hopes to promote his younger brother Alessandro to the throne of Egypt. He has found refuge disguised as a shepherd in Cyprus. During the course of the opera, his wife Seleuce arrives in Cyprus looking for her husband, but she receives unwelcome attention from the bullying and lustful King Arsape. Meanwhile, Tolomeo’s brother Alessandro has also arrived in Cyprus, but he turns out to be a generous gentleman who falls in love with Arsape’s sister Elisa, who, alas, has fallen violently in love with a certain shepherd…
Tolomeo is a curious mixture between a charming pastoral and an intense dynastic opera seria. Handel’s music is consistently superb throughout, and is an often thrilling setting of a convincingly dramatic libretto. The climax is ‘Stille amare’, a scene in which the title-hero is forced to drink poison, and he describes his emotions as he feels his life ebbing away. It is intense stuff for what begins in light-hearted vein (e.g. ‘Non col di labbro’, Alessandro’s charming aria that is best known as the song ‘Silent worship’), but ‘Stille amare’ is certainly one of Handel’s most remarkable operatic achievements. I am also very fond of Seleuce’s pastoral lament ‘Fonti amiche’, with its emotional melodic quality. In fact, Tolomeo is a superb opera, and it should be much better known.
This recording was made at Halle in 1998 after a run of performances at the Handel Festival, and is comfortably the best Tolomeo yet made available. The British conductor Howard Arman is an experienced Handel opera conductor who works mainly in German and Austrian theatres, and he won considerable respect at Halle for teaching the resident opera house orchestra to play baroque music on period instruments. This recording is a testament to Arman’s achievement. Although it does not clarify this in the CD booklet, Arman told me that this recording was made very quickly in a school classroom because there was nowhere else available. Given the relative inexperience of the players, and the haste of the recording, this Tolomeo is truly remarkable: tempos are generally perfect, ritornellos characterise the dramatic sentiment of the arias, the singers perform with stylish awareness and engaging ornamentation, and the drama rings true throughout.
Axel Köhler is probably not many people’s favourite countertenor, but his performance here far outshines most of his work elsewhere. His ability to contrast strong harsh passions with gentler moments suits the role. Arman takes ‘Stille amare’ very slowly, but this seems right to me: Tolomeo thinks he is dying, and most other performers to have recorded this magnificent scene clearly do not appreciate that the dramatic context matters. Köhler’s voice might not be pretty, but his ability to act the role is totally convincing. Soprano Linda Perillo sings much better here than she has done on some recent Naxos recordings under Martini, and the cast is globally quite good. The lack of big stars does not create any problem for me: I’d far rather hear a decent team performance like this where Handel’s opera is placed first before the hype surrounding his latter-day interpreters.
The reliable and intelligent musical performance is quite surprising if one examines the production photos. The staging was evidently one of the very worst sorts one can imagine, set in a location like a lunatic asylum crossed with an unpleasant public swimming pool. It is a tribute to Arman that the musical performance clearly transcends what looks like an awful staging that probably tried very hard to ‘Make A Point’. In fact, there are plenty of popular Handel opera recordings a lot less satisfying than this one. Do not be put off by the packaging or the obscurity of this recording’s origin. Several highlights have been recorded with greater eloquence in recitals by David Daniels (‘Sento amor’, on Virgin), or Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott (‘The Rival Queens’, on Hyperion), but Arman’s overall performance is persuasive and engaging.
However, I am disappointed that half the libretto to Act I is missing in my copy of the booklet, and several tracks skipped during my first listen. I never had any such criticisms of the Halle opera house’s original issue of this recording, which was also considerably cheaper. Perhaps I was unlucky with my copy of this reissue, or maybe my CD player needs a clean. Generally, I think that this recording is well worth hearing. Even if another Tolomeo is recorded in the future, it will have to be excellent in order to be significantly better than this.
© David Vickers - September 2004
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