In 1706, at the age of 21, Handel made the best of all possible contacts: the Medici family, who had massive amounts of money that they loved to spend on the arts. So, Handel was off to Italy to really lay the groundwork for his opera-writing career, which would then flourish in his soon-to-be new home, London. And when Londoners eventually tired of his Italian-language operas, Handel adjusted, becoming arguably the greatest oratorio composer ever.
He created hundreds of arias for his 42 operas and 29 oratorios, plus various shorter vocal works. Many of these complete works are rarely or never performed. However, recording albums of Handel arias on their own (sometimes paired with a recitative) is a common rite of passage for singers who love the Baroque. Several new ones have come out recently.
I’ll start with the newest, which also happens to be the weakest. The singer is German soprano Simone Kermes, these days tending more toward the mezzo range. At age 53, that’s no surprise; it is surprising that Sony backed this project when Kermes simply isn’t up for the challenge. Mio caro Händel, it’s called. I’m not sure she did her dear Handel any favors.
The ensemble Amici Veneziani, under the direction of violinist Boris Begelman, does its best to help. Their playing is spritely and clear, with a nicer balance of strings, woodwinds, and brass than some Baroque bands manage. But even their support can’t make Kermes’ singing delicate enough in this famous, gorgeous aria from Rinaldo, “Lascia ch’io pianga.” Consistently, she swoops from below before landing on her intended pitch, à la Julia Andrews. Handel’s melodies, inspired by the figuration used by orchestral instruments, requires clarity and purity (of the pitch, not of the soul).
Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne has been good enough to provide a contrasting example with her recent album, Alma Oppressa: Vivaldi and Handel Arias, on the Analekta label. Luc Beauséjour conducts from the harpsichord, and the ensemble is the Montreal-based Clavecin en concert.
Compare Boulianne’s recording of that same aria, “Lascia ch’io pianga,” and notice the long lines sculpted with detailed choices in dynamics and breathing. This singer knows before she starts each phrase exactly where she’s going musically and where she plans to end up. And there’s no swooping.
Beauséjour gets a chance to show what his ensemble can do in this Act-I aria from the 1740 opera Imeneo. The orchestra’s rich, flexible sound emotionally mirrors Boulianne, who’s singing as the heartbroken, jilted lover Tirinto, a role meant for castrato.
My only quibble with Boulianne is that she uses more vibrato than is ideal for Baroque arias. Soprano Stefanie True’s singing on Handel in Italy: Cantatas, Arias, Serenata (Brilliant Classics) is more aligned with historical performance practice, employing a brighter sound and very little vibrato.
This collection is also a reminder that not every Handel aria comes from an aria or oratorio. Some were part of shorter secular works called serenatas and cantatas, usually meant to be sung in the homes of wealthy patrons. O lucenti, o sereni occhi is one such cantata, from which True sings the aria “In voi, pupille ardenti.” The ensemble Contrasto armónico accompanies.
Lest I give the impression that Handel wrote only for women and castrati, here’s proof to the contrary. Bass Marco Vitali shows off the profundo end of his range with astonishing leaps in this aria from the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. The leaps are typical of the Baroque musical affect representing stress or fear (the aria’s title translates as “Between the shadows and the horrors”).
This is an enormous collection of recits, arias, and some instrumental sonatas, with other singers and ensembles involved on the 315 tracks (!), but True and Vitali have done the bulk of the work.
Speaking of Handel’s writing for bass singers, Christopher Purves recently came out with Volume 2 of his series Handel’s Finest Arias for Base Voice. (Hyperion). Volume 1 was released in 2012. Although Hyperion has no full tracks available free on any service, including Spotify, you can listen to excerpts of every track here.
It’s nice to have some oratorios represented for a change, allowing us to hear how Handel dealt with English text. In a strident piece like “Ah, canst thou but prove me” (from Act 2 of the oratorio Athalia), Purves manages to be both emotionally forceful and vocally at ease. He’s just as comfortable in Italian and bathed in melancholy for “Langue, trema, e prigionero” from the opera Nell’africane selve.
While every opera and oratorio had a bass role, countertenor is the vocal range most associated with Handel’s operatic writing. That was true both in his own time and now, and with good reason. One word: Farinelli. He and other castrati of the 18th century were revered as superstars. I doubt that epithet can be applied to Mathieu Salama, whose new self-published album Arias: Vivaldi & Handel is an earnest effort – maybe too earnest. It’s not a bad recording, but it isn’t one for posterity.
Take this aria from Handel’s opera Flavio, re de’Longobardi. While Salama’s singing is fervent, his voice goes from slightly to very pinched. The small ensemble of freelancers accompanying him has some issues with intonation, although violinist Solenne Turquet takes a nice solo turn.
Oh, but I’ve saved the best for last. True, Farinelli’s voice may never be equaled in its range and control, but how will we ever know? We have no way to hear him. Lucky for us, we live in the age of recorded sound. So we get to bask in the vocal glory of talents like Franco Fagioli.
Fagioli’s new Deutsche Grammophon release, Handel Arias, is simply exquisite. That’s thanks both to Fagioli’s singing and the nuanced support by the ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by violinist Zefira Valova. The whole spectrum of styles and emotions present in Handel’s dramatic arias is treated with sensitivity and grace.
Grab a tissue and listen to this aria from Rinaldo. I love the breathiness in the strings during the opening ritornello, preparing us for the pain and longing Fagioli brings to his part.
And, holy smokes! Check out this aria from the opera Oreste. You don’t even need to be told that “Agitato da fiere tempeste” means “Agitated by fierce storms.” Fagioli becomes a human firebrand, and Il Pomo d’Oro smolders and sparks right along with him.