Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Handel Arias, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Harry Bicket, Avie AV 0030 (released August 10, 2004)
Also on Ionarts:
Andreas Scholl, Arias for Senesino (November 21, 2005)
Cecilia Bartoli at the Kennedy Center (October 28, 2005)
Cecilia Bartoli, Opera Proibita (October 6, 2005)
Violons du Roy with Karina Gauvin, Kennedy Center (January 23, 2005)
Renée Fleming, Handel (November 22, 2004)
When Handel set out to make an oratorio on the story of the Christian martyr Theodora -- after so many successes with Old Testament narratives -- he was probably thinking of the success of "saint operas" (even if they were officially oratorios or cantatas) in Rome. Richard Wigmore, in his liner notes, quotes the memoirs of the oratorio's librettist, Thomas Morell, as to the reason why Handel's Theodora failed so spectacularly with both important segments of the London audience: "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story, and the Ladies will not come because it [is] a virtuous one." Morell was a vicar for the Church of England, and he used as his source Robert Boyle's 17th-century novel The Marytrdom of Theodora and Didymus. LHL gives us five arias sung by Theodora's confidant, Irene, most of them with introductory recitatives.
This was the role LHL recorded, to critical acclaim, on the 1992 disc of Theodora, with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for Harmonia Mundi. For a DVD released in 2000, LHL's supporting instrumentalists, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, played for a modern staging of this oratorio, directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by William Christie. In fact, there is certainly no shortage of complete recordings of Theodora, all of them excellent: Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien (Elektra, 1991), Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players (Archiv, 2000), and William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (Erato, 2003). I am not sure what made LHL want to revisit a supporting character in this work in the context of a solo aria CD, but the results should make us happy she did.
Anne-Marie Le Blé took the CD's cover photo, showing LHL at Glyndebourne in 2003, and its passionate, praying subject encapsulates the intensity LHL captures in her voice. LHL started musically as a violist, and she still has an instrumental approach to singing in many ways. (For an excellent profile of LHL, see Charles Michener, The Soul Singer, in the January 5, 2004 issue of The New Yorker.) Her voice is not necessarily the prettiest instrument either, and its strengths and color remind me sometimes of the viola. What is so striking about the way that LHL sings is the directness, creating sound that cuts through the air at you, sometimes dark, sometimes a touch too vibrated, not always with a laserlike precision of pitch, but immediate and dramatically present.
The highlight of the CD in my opinion is the Italian cantata La Lucrezia. This dramatic solo piece was also recorded by Magdalena Kožená, with Marc Minkowski's Les Musiciens du Louvre (Archiv, 2001), by male contralto Gérard Lesne with Il Seminario musicale (EMI, 2001), and by Eva Mei with Il Giardino Armonico (Elektra, 2000), so it's not exactly unknown either. The heroine and story -- the noble Roman wife Lucrezia, described by Livy in Ab urbe condita, who when raped takes her own life to save her husband from dishonor -- are perfect for LHL's dramatic sense. Just as Baroque painters captured the pathos of Lucrezia's story in the moment when she brandishes the suicidal knife over her heart -- the best is Rembrandt's famous Lucretia here in the National Gallery -- Handel and his librettist, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, are concerned only with the final moments of Lucrezia's anguish. Her plea to the gods that her assaultor be punished, her curse when divine justice does not seem imminent, and in a typically Caravaggio moment, the hovering of the knife, the piercing of the knife, and a final moment of ecstasy as Lucrezia's blood flows. It's a gutsy piece of music drama, not to be missed.
The addition of two famous excerpts from Handel's opera Serse seems extraneous, but one cannot argue with the sound. LHL's calm, contained Ombra mai fù shatters the competing reading on Renée Fleming's Handel disc with its sublime subtlety. Xerxes obviously liked his platano amato -- what the Persians called the chinar and what we call a sycamore or planetree. A lot. According to Herodotus, when Xerxes found this large tree on the road to Sardis, he had it decorated with gold and assigned one of his personal bodyguards to make sure no one harmed it. He was the first tree-hugger. He also had his soldiers lash the unruly waters of the Hellespont when he had trouble crossing. Clearly, his driveway didn't go all the way to the garage.
LHL's part on this recording is nothing short of extraordinary. The minor quirks of her sound aside, every phrase is expressively and movingly rendered, with a full range of dynamics and colors. The embellishments are tasteful, if on the less flashy side. The instrumental fabric is most often a dry, understated sound. Lutenist Stephen Stubbs uses a Baroque guitar for some of the furioso pieces in La Lucrezia (like "Il suol che preme" and "Ma se qui non m'è dato," tracks 13 and 17, respectively), which gives those pieces a driven, warm, almost Flamenco texture. In the battle of the Handel aria CDs, this one is definitely in the running for the best one.