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More Handel Arias, Sandrine Piau

Available on Amazon:
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Sandrine Piau, Haendel Opera Seria, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset, Naïve E 8894 (U.S. release, January 18, 2005, recorded and European release in 2004)

Also on Ionarts:

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Handel Arias (January 20, 2006)

Andreas Scholl, Arias for Senesino (November 21, 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)
Handel has been very big for new solo aria discs the past couple years. More than one Ionarts reader (most recently, one Akimon) has suggested Sandrine Piau's CD of opera seria arias, and finally I received a copy as a gift. (Dear Naïve Representative, please start sending us the new discs in your catalogue, and Ionarts will review more of your releases.) Christophe Rousset has worked with Sandrine Piau on a number of projects, and the two created this program as a look back at their performing careers together, beginning with the first Handel opera they recreated together, Scipione (1726), in 1994. The disc brings together 11 coloratura arias from as many operas that Handel premiered in London, from Amadigi di Gaula in 1715 to Deidamia in 1741.

There is a phrase on this recording that will tickle every part of your melodic fancy, from long, spun-out adagios to thrilling, soaring passage work. I admit that I was taken with this disc from my first listening to the first track, an excellent selection from Scipione, where Piau and Rousset's collaboration began. The little cadenza before the da capo repeat rises up to an unexpected high note, leading the listener into a brilliantly ornamented second statement of the A section. Rousset's group, Les Talens Lyriques, provides the perfect instrumental background for Piau's extraordinary voice. This is Baroque performance with the same appeal for the baroqueux and the non-specialist ear. Full-voiced, dramatic readings with élan, and daring ornamentation to provide interest (seven of the embellished da capo repeats credited to Rousset, and five -- many of the best ones, in my opinion -- to Jérôme Corréas, a bass who has appeared on recordings with Piau, including that of Rameau's Castor et Pollux by Les Arts Florissants). Instrumental soloists are listed with each appropriate track, and rightly so, because their crucial contributions are all superlatively played.

Piau's voice is a marvel, somewhere between the cold laser of an early music voice like Emma Kirkby and the emotional energy of a more full-bodied voice like Cecilia Bartoli. The high notes are ringingly clear, and broad dynamic possibilities are played out throughout her range. In sustained melismatic passages she has remarkable agility, with occasional lapses in tone ("L'amor ed il destin," from Partenope, track 5, is an example), although she can leap out of those complicated runs into striking stratospheric ornaments ("Brilla nell'anima," from Alessandro, track 7).

The purpose of the recording, according to the excellent liner notes by Philippe Gelinaud, is (the translation is by Charles Johnston):
to illustrate both the variety of affects, dramatic situations, and orchestral colors, and the rich hedonism of Handel's vocal style. The result is an anthology devoted to the Handelian prima donna that features arias composed over more than two decades for some of the greatest divas of the time.
Each track represents a highly distilled flavor, concentrated musical felicity. Listening to a selection of arias out of their operatic context, with their short texts of usually only a few lines, makes absolutely clear what the function of the Baroque aria was. That is, not to advance the narrative but to take you into the character's state of mind. When you realize that, the practice of the substitute aria makes much more sense, because you do not really need to know anything about the operas or characters associated with each aria to appreciate it. In a way, that emotional piece, illuminated with appropriate musical color, could be inserted into any story.

Handel's best and most consistent operas date mostly from the heyday of the Academy of Ancient Music, especially in the 1720s. However, there are pieces from the later operas that show that the older Handel in command of vast compositional powers. Clotilde's aria -- "Combattuta da due venti," from Faramondo (1738), track 9 -- stands out on this disc. The heroine's words, that she is "like a ship amid the billows buffeted by two opposing winds," are played out in the wavelike cataract of clashing instrumental parts of the ritornello. Each time that section of music returns, which calls out for ornamentation, Piau and Rousset's players torque up the musical buffeting. The same is true of the aria from Deidamia from 1741 ("M'ai resa infelice," sung by the title character, track 11), which is not a da capo aria, shifting between extremes of emotion with contrasting musical styles.

I warmly recommend this disc, as supplanting even Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's excellent Handel CD in the same year. As my own celebration of the Mozart year, I will be acquiring Sandrine Piau's acclaimed 2002 CD of Mozart arias and her Vivaldi Project disc (from 2005), too.

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