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Alan Curtis Signs Almost Definitive 'Alcina'

available at Amazon
Handel, Alcina, J. DiDonato, M. Beaumont, K. Gauvin, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis

(released on April 14, 2009)
Archiv 477 7374

Online full score:
HWV 34 (old complete works edition)

Libretto (.PDF file, adapted from libretto of L'isola di Alcina, by Riccardo Broschi, the brother of the castrato Farinelli)
Preceding their release of Handel's Ezio, reviewed last week, Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco rang in the Handel anniversary year with a long-awaited recording of Alcina. Although this opera more or less died with Handel, not to be revived again until the 20th century, it has been one of the favorites of the Handel revival. We have reviewed two stagings of it in the last three years, by Opera Vivente in 2007 and by Wolf Trap Opera in 2008. (La Scala even mounted the opera earlier this year.) Likewise a new recording of the work does not automatically find itself in control of a field empty of competitors. The natural competition is William Christie's stunning (if not universally liked) recording of the opera from a decade ago, combining his historically informed performance ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, with mainstream opera stars Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Natalie Dessay. The embellishments and cadenzas were (quite appropriately for Baroque opera) out of control, and while Fleming especially is no great Handelian, it makes for an exciting listening experience.

We cannot recommend the Christie version as the reference recording to own, however, because he did not include the ballet music (conceived by Handel for the French dancer Marie Sallé) and made some cuts to the vocal music, although now that Warner Classics UK has re-released both Christie's Alcina and Orlando as a bargain-price 6-CD set ($31.98), the Handel enthusiast would be crazy not to buy it. Joan Sutherland's various recordings of the role, for which she was rightly acclaimed, are interesting to hear and quite beautiful in their own way, but all with many cuts to the complete score and not performed on historical instruments. Prior to the Curtis version, the recording to own was the one featuring the incomparable Arleen Auger in the title role, with the late Richard Hickox leading the City of London Baroque Sinfonia. A stellar conductor, Hickox recorded the entire score (and I mean everything, including the controversial ballet scene at the end of Act II), and while the rest of the cast, although good, is not up to Auger's level, it is a beautiful recording, now heavily discounted in its re-release from EMI Classics.

Alan Curtis's Handel:
available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon
The cast assembled by Curtis is outstanding, beginning with the unusual decision to have a mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, sing the soprano title role. DiDonato wrote about her anxiety in taking on the role at her blog Yankeediva (along with many interesting posts on the recording sessions), but the results are uniformly impressive. One might wonder why Curtis did not cast Karina Gauvin, whom we heard sing excerpts of the title role with Les Violons du Roy a few years ago. Quite brilliantly, Curtis gave Gauvin the role of Morgana, much more a true soprano role (created by the English soprano Cecilia Young), in which she gives a performance of breath-taking clarity and innocence (Winton Dean describes the role of the sorceress's sister as one of the most sincere in the opera). It was the Italian singer Anna Maria Strada del Pò who created the role of Alcina, an Italian distinguished by her hideous looks (Charles Burney records that one of her nicknames was The Pig) and a voice that at first was compared to Faustina Bordoni (a mezzo-soprano) and eventually burnished and extended by the efforts of Handel and others. DiDonato's voice has just that grain and tension in this more dramatic role.

The soprano Laura Cherici, although lovely in tone, could perhaps be a bit more boyish in the role of Oberto, the son of Astolfo looking for his father on the island, a role created by the boy soprano William Savage (Handel often refers to him only as "The Boy" in his score). Maïté Beaumont is consistently silken in the equally demanding role of Ruggiero, created by alto castrato Giovanni Carestini, giving some impression of the agility and clarity of that legendary voice type. As Bradamante, created as a trouser role by Maria Caterina Negri, Sonia Prina is the more intense of the two mezzos. The virtues of the male supporting cast, tenor Kobie van Rensburg (Oronte) and bass Vito Priante (Melisso), are familiar from other recordings. The members of Il Complesso Barocco play with all of their accustomed ensemble precision and stylistic panache, with fine obbligato turns by lead violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, cellist Nils Wieboldt, and the recorders, as well as the flauto piccolo solo in the Tamburino dance from the end of the third act. The continuo is enlivened considerably by Pier Luigi Ciapparelli's theorbo.

Curtis has created his own performing score from the sources, available from Novello, something he would have likely done even if the score had been published in the new Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, which it has not yet. He includes all of the vocal music, even reinstating Ruggiero's Bramo di trionfar, a virtuosic aria that Handel cut from Act I before the premiere (eventually incorporating it into the revived version of Athalia). Curtis also keeps the second version of the Act I chorus Questo è il ciel (Handel also reused the first version in the Athalia revival). The only music that Curtis does not include, somewhat oddly, is the little ballet divertissement of the Songes agréables, funestes, et effrayés at the end of Act II. Here is what eminent Handel authority Winton Dean has to say about this music (Handel's Operas, 1726-1741, pp. 325-26):
At the end of Act II Handel imported the composite dance finale written for Act II of Ariodante but excluded from that opera. This has been doubted, but its presence in several copies authenticates its performance in Alcina. The entire section, including the end of Ginevra's previous aria and her concluding accompagnato, was transferred from the performing score of Ariodante to that of Alcina. The 'späterer Schluss' added by Handel in faint pencil is difficult to account for; it does not appear anywhere else. The sequence is a powerful example of ballet d'action, but more effective in its original context, where it represents the dreams of the sleeping Ginevra, than in Alcina.
The end of Act II certainly has more dramatic punch without the ballet scene (the omission seems to be at least tacitly approved by Dean), and it does seem like a clumsy graft onto its new branch in Alcina. I think Curtis made a mistake in this case, however, by not including these entrées, at least as an appendix at the end of the third disc, where there is plenty of room. Not only in the interest of making this superb recording as complete as possible (Hickox did record them, remember), but because, as remarked of a performance of them by Les Violons du Roy a few years ago (along with a few of Alcina's arias by Karina Gauvin), the music is gorgeous.


Alan Curtis (0:40) -- "Today, many people still have the prejudice of thinking
that the oratorios are the great pieces -- [fake adoring tone] 'The Messiah!'"

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