Notes and Editorial Reviews
Desirable though such an ideal might be, the chances of a reviewer assessing a recording with a metaphorical blank screen in front of him are few. First sight of this set immediately invoked two images relating to live performances. A couple of years ago I attended a staged version of Handel?s oratorio
given by Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company, whose recording debut this new
represents. So dire was the production, so mediocre the performance that I confess to leaving at the interval. The other memory is still very recent. Only a few weeks before receiving this set, I heard a magnificent performance of
given at the Beaune Festival by Antonio Florio and his Capella de?Turchini, an experience that could not do other than weigh on any verdict I might arrive at reviewing this new set. We?ll come to details on Curnyns?s performance a little later, but for the moment let?s make it clear that it is superior to his
, if hardly ideal.
The collapse of the first Royal Academy of Music in the summer of 1728 left Handel with the task of reorganizing his career as an opera composer. The temperamental stars, whose exorbitant fees and extravagant behavior had in no small measure been responsible for the Academy?s demise, had left for greener pastures. After ensuring opera would continue in London, Handel, too, left his adopted country on a search for fresh talent, visiting Venice, Naples, and Rome (and possibly other opera centers). By the time he returned to London, Handel had contracted an entirely new team of singers, many of whom would form the mainstay of his company during the 1730s. Among them were the soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, the first Partenope, and the outstanding tenor Annibal Pio Fabri, the creator of the role of Emilio.
A fresh start perhaps called for a fresh approach, but the heroic
28:4 and 28:5), the first of the operas presented by the so-called ?second Academy? did not provide it, proving a failure that was to be matched by
, an opera that did however strike out in new directions. First given at the King?s Theatre on February 12, 1730,
was based on an excellent libretto by Silvio Stampiglia dating back to 1699, and subsequently set by a number of composers, including Leonardo Vinci. His splendid version of 1725 was memorably given by the Capella de?Turchini at Beaune two years ago, and it is a matter of great regret that Naïve?s Opus 111 plans for a recording appear to have been shelved as a result of the company?s current obsession with Vivaldi?s operas.
The plot revolves around romantic intrigues at the court of Queen Partenope, the legendary founder of Naples, who, during the course of the opera, juggles with the attentions of no fewer than three suitors. The action is treated with a lightness of touch that doubtless disconcerted Handel?s contemporaries, but which we can today see as a sophisticated tragicomedy of manners in which the pleasures, pain, and turmoil of love are delicately delineated against the backcloth of a romantic, warm Mediterranean glow. In this sense, it would not be out of place to see
as the counterpart of another opera located in Naples?
Così fan tutte
. Perhaps influenced by the modern operas he had recently heard during his visit to Italy, the music Handel composed for
also marks a new departure, with simpler harmonies (often just two-part) and memorably tuneful arias that at times approach
Partenope herself is one of Handel?s happiest creations, a rounded character who not only displays the authoritarian, even Amazonian qualities (she is quite prepared to lead her followers into battle) of a queen, but is also a sensual woman who enjoys the attention of men (the original Partenope was, after all, the last of the Sirens), and is flirtatiously in love with love. She is, indeed, a close relation of
?s Cleopatra, or at least the Cleopatra of the earlier part of that opera. Rosemary Joshua, Christian Curnyn?s Partenope, brings a considerable sense of character to the part, at her best in the delicious, gossamer-light ?Qual farfalletta? (act II), but under pressure in some of the more florid numbers the voice takes on a hard-edged brilliance that detracts from Partenope?s allure, a quality unforgettably conveyed by Maria Grazia Schiavo in the Florio performance mentioned above, and, to a lesser extent, Krisztina Laki in the 1979 DHM recording conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken.
It has to be said that neither Joshua nor the rest of a good cast are given much incentive to project a strong dramatic performance by Curnyn?s direction, which, although thoroughly stylish and competent, if at times pedestrian, hardly ever manages to suggest that it has ever been near the opera house. There is a general feeling of caution, the impression that the performance is feeling its way. Neither is it helped by neat, but undernourished string-playing from a body less than half the size (4-4-2-2-1) Handel had at his disposal at the King?s Theatre. Just occasionally there are hints of what this cast might have achieved with stronger direction, most notably in the instance of Lawrence Zazzo?s Arsace, which often rises above the tepid norm to convey effectively the conflicting emotions of a man torn between his love for Partenope, and Rosmira, the woman he abandoned, and whose very real pain makes for an admirable foil with Partenope. Kuijken?s recording was something of a landmark among Handel opera recordings, one of the first to approach them with due regard for historical performance practice. Despite its age, it still stands up remarkably well, and in general terms it is to be preferred to this new Chandos if it can be found (it was last available at midprice on GD77109). Ideally, I dream of having Florio?s performance on disc, but I fear it is likely to remain just that?a dream.
Finally, let me stress that Curnyn?s
is by no means poor. It provides a more than acceptable account of one of Handel?s most unjustly neglected and appealing operas, and as such is worthy of investigation by Handelians. The sound is up to Chandos?s customary standards, and there is a good introductory note by David Vickers. It was, however, lazy to retain the original convoluted 18th-century English translation (also used by DHM), which at times is more likely to confuse than enlighten.
FANFARE: Brian Robins