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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Richard Hickox, cond; Arleen Augér (
); Eiddwen Harrhy (
); Della Jones (
); Kathleen Kuhlmann (
); Patrizia Kwella (
); Maldwyn Davies (
); John Tomlinson (
); London Op Ch; City of London Baroque Snf (period instruments)
EMI 58681 (3 CDs: 217: 47)
Richard Hickox’s recording of
stemmed from a highly effective production by Frank Corsaro, first given at Hawksmoor’s wonderful Christ Church, Spitalfields in London in July 1985, and subsequently at the Cheltenham Festival later the same month. The studio recording was made at the same time as the British performances, while the production was also seen in Los Angeles the following year.
Missing from the catalog for some time, the return of the set at midprice is extremely welcome for at least two good reasons. The first is that it was, and remains, the only absolutely complete recording of Handel’s original 1735 score, including the ballet music written for the famous Marie Sallé. Indeed, it is more complete than complete, as a fine aria for Bradamante, “Bramo di trionfar,” cut by Handel when he added the character of Oberto late in the day is included as an appendix, as is an alternative version of the act I chorus, “Questo è il cielo.”
The second reason is Arleen Augér’s singing of the title role, a wonderful testament to the American soprano who is today still lamented following her tragically early death in 1993. Not only was Augér in glorious voice at the time the recording was made, but her Alcina is outstanding for the depth and insight she brings to one of Handel’s most complex heroines. “Di’, cor mio,” Alcina’s first aria, instantly brings us face to face with a woman well aware of her sensual powers, yet at the same time one who is equally prey to fragility and vulnerability. Later in the same act, “Sì; son quella” leaves ambivalent feelings. Is this a woman turning on feminine wiles? Or one suffering bitter hurt, as the change of tonal color on the word “traditore” suggests? Augér cleverly leaves us guessing. In act II, she makes the most of the brilliantly dramatic surprise at “Ah! mio cor!”, a point at which we expect a brilliant coloratura outburst of fury, but instead have our hearts wrung by the sorceress’s almost unbearable pain—listen to Augér’s singing of “sola in pianto” (“alone and in tears”)—while in the B section the repeated, unanswerable word “Perche?” rings out inconsolably. The great, accompanied recitative that precedes “Ombre pallide” is projected with spine-tingling intensity, while the latter sets the seal on a magnificent assumption of the role.
I wrote “at least” above advisedly, for the performance has other strong merits, not least Kathleen Kuhlmann’s splendid Bradamante, a role she repeated some 15 years later with equal success for William Christie. There is, in fact, not a weak link in a cast completed largely by highly proficient and stylish British singers, although there are times when Della Jones’s vibrato is a little overdone. Particularly impressive is Maldwyn Davies’s Oronte, his elegantly produced tenor ideally suited to the charming minuet-tempo “Un momento di contento,” while Patrizia Kwella, a highly promising soprano whose career was set back by serious illness, makes for an enchanting Oberto who rises well to the challenge of “Barbara!”, the florid act III aria in which the page dares to confront Alcina.
The eclectic Richard Hickox is today far less associated with Baroque repertoire than he was 20 years ago, and it has to be said that he was not a perfect Handelian. Many of the tempos here are decidedly on the slow side, at times to the point of sounding rhythmically sluggish compared with the vitality of such outstanding Handelians as Alan Curtis or (on occasions) Marc Minkowski. There are times when Hickox seems over-seduced by the sheer beauty of this most ravishing of scores, and he makes a real meal of its most famous number, “Verdi prati.” Neither is the playing of the City of London Baroque Sinfonia, a pickup band led by Simon Standage, as finished as we would expect today. Yet Hickox is admirably supportive of his singers, and the whole performance has an overall feel of the kind of integrity that is now too often sadly lacking.
There is only one rival period performance, that of Christie (Erato), a version largely dismissed by both Bernard Jacobson and myself in
24:1 on account of the wildly unstylish ornamentation employed by its star singers, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Natalie Dessay. That is not a problem with the Hickox, where, apart from the odd over-exuberant flourish from Augér, embellishments are stylish and sensible. Those wishing to return to an earlier style of Handel performance—cuts, transpositions and all—are reminded of three recordings featuring a famous Alcina, Joan Sutherland, the recommendation of both Jacobson and another former
reviewer, Ralph V. Lucano, being for the one conducted by Ferdinand Leitner (Melodram).
EMI has slightly altered the disposition of the three discs for the present reissue, giving better-placed changes that now leave the whole of the final disc devoted to act III. The sound remains very good. On the downside, there is no longer a libretto, although you can download it if you go to EMI’s Web site; and the excellent essay by Handel authority Anthony Hicks that accompanied the original issue has been dropped in place of a much briefer essay and a prosaic synopsis of the plot. It would be idle to claim that Hickox’s
does full justice to one of Handel’s greatest operas. Yet it is unquestionably the best we have for the moment, and, above all, should be snapped up by anyone who appreciated the art of the much-missed Arleen Augér.
FANFARE: Brian Robins Read less
Works on This Recording
Alcina, HWV 34 by George Frideric Handel
Della Jones (Mezzo Soprano),
Eiddwen Harrhy (Soprano),
Kathleen Kuhlmann (Alto),
Patrizia Kwella (Soprano),
Maldwyn Davies (Tenor),
John Tomlinson (Bass),
Ian Watson (Harpsichord),
Arleen Augér (Soprano),
John Heley (Cello),
Dorothy Linell (Lute)
London Opera Chorus,
City of London Baroque Sinfonia
Written: 1735; London, England
Venue: Abbey Road Studios No 1, London
Length: 215 Minutes 27 Secs.
Notes: Abbey Road Studios No 1, London (07/19/1985 - 07/31/1985)
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Joy to hear again July 10, 2013
By Rory R. (Winnipeg, MB) See All My Reviews
"What a joy to hear this beautiful, incisive performance based on a production at Los Angeles Opera in the mid-Eighties. The great Arlene Auger flattens all competition with her searing account of the title role; the supporting cast under Hickox is lovely. It is difficult to pick the best of Handel's operas, but this performance may persuade one that Alcina is indeed it."