Alan Curtis, a musicologist formerly at the University of California at Berkeley, has released a number of striking Baroque opera recordings with his group Il Complesso Barocco. Recent examples recommended here include Handel's Floridante (2007), Radamisto (2005), and Rodelinda (2005) and Vivaldi's Motezuma (2006), and we look forward to the forthcoming Alcina, with Joyce DiDonato in the title role (recorded last summer). The latest Handel to join the collection is this Tolomeo, Rè di Egitto, premiered in 1728, the last opera to be presented under the auspices of the failed Royal Academy of Music. The opera was meant to be produced on a small scale, with just five roles and only one concluding number for chorus. Handel pulled out all the stops for the premiere, casting his celebrated alto castrato, Senesino, in the title role, across from the dueling sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni as Seleuce and Elisa, respectively. Handel also mounted revivals of Tolomeo, with revisions for different casts, in 1730 and 1733.
Handel, Tolomeo, A. Hallenberg, K. Gauvin, R. Basso, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis
(released March 11, 2008)
Archiv 477 710-6
For much of the opera, it feels like Handel is phoning it in, although recent scholarship has indicated that the lack of vocal and instrumental pizzazz represents Handel's attempt to create a more dramatically believable work. With singers as talented as this exceptional cast, there are still thrilling moments, especially with the often inspired embellishments on da capo repeats (presumably by Curtis). Worth mention is Elisa's Quanto è felice, with its high notes on short Ha's, by the brilliant soprano of Anna Bonitatibus, another singer in the mold of Simone Kermes, who has worked with Curtis several times. Given Curtis's apparent preference for mezzo-sopranos over countertenors for the castrato roles, the only male voice is the puissant bass of Pietro Spagnoli as Araspe.
Two of the most beautiful numbers in the opera are the duets between Tolomeo and Seleuce, Se il cor ti perde and Tutto contento (at the ends of Acts II and III, respectively), which feature the pure, blended voices of mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg (Tolomeo) and soprano Karina Gauvin (Seleuce). Both are splendid individually, too, as is Romina Basso in the role of Tolomeo's younger brother, Alessandro. The major conflict of the libretto (.PDF file) by Nicola Francesco Haym is a struggle of succession, between Tolomeo (Ptolemy IX) and his mother, Cleopatra, who favors his younger brother, who will become Ptolemy X. The opera begins like The Tempest, with a shipwreck, as Tolomeo's brother, Alessandro, washes up on the shores of Cyprus, where he falls in love with Elisa, the sister of the ruler, Adraspe.
Elisa has fallen in love with Tolomeo, who has been exiled to Cyprus and lives disguised as a shepherd. By chance, Tolomeo's wife, for whom he has searched in vain, is also living on Cyprus disguised as a shepherdess. Adraspe falls in love with her, and hilarity ensues. Improbably, all of these complications are, not unexpectedly, resolved into a lieto fine. This opera may not be the best option for the average listener, but for any fan of good Baroque playing and singing, it is highly recommended.