The Russian composer Elena Langer, now resident in Britain, draws on influences from her native country (Shostakovich, especially in the chamber orchestration of these songs), from Britain (from Britten to Thomas Adès), and from continental Europe. As a song composer she is able to convey lightness even when dealing with serious material such as the title song cycle setting poems by Lee Harwood (most of the songs on the album are in English). These songs subtly depict love triangles, some of them with both straight and gay elements. Even better are the genuinely playful pieces.
Atalanta (HWV 35) is a pastoral opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel composed in 1736. It is based upon the mythological female athlete, Atalanta, the libretto (which is in Italian) being derived from the book La Caccia in Etolia by Belisario Valeriani. The identity of the librettist is not known. Handel composed it for the London celebrations of the marriage in 1736 of Frederick, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King George II, to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. The first performance took place on 12 May 1736 in the Covent Garden Theatre. It closed with a spectacular display of fireworks, which was highly popular with the royal family and the London audience, and the opera and fireworks display were revived a number of times in the year of its first performance.
L'opera fu composta nel 1712 e andò in scena per la prima volta il 22 novembre dello stesso anno, sotto la direzione del compositore stesso, al Her Majesty's Theatre di Londra. L'accoglienza fu generalmente negativa, probabilmente a causa delle elevate aspettative che il pubblico nutriva in seguito al successo dell'opera Rinaldo. Un commentatore riporta che "la scenografia rappresentava unicamente l'Arcadia, i costumi erano vecchi e l'opera breve". I ruoli di Mirtillo e Silvio furono interpretati dai castrati Valeriano Pellegrini e Valentino Urbani. L'ouverture è in sei movimenti appare eccessivamente ampia per quei tempi: è verosimile pensare che fosse stata scritta come una suite orchestrale distinta dall'opera.
McGegan's recording is of considerable documentary interest in that a separate section at the conclusion of each of the three parts of Messiah - there are three discs accordingly - is reserved for the many alternative versions of arias, accompanied recitatives and choruses which Handel himself used or at least approved in performances during the 1740s and 1750s. In this way, the booklet explains, the listener can select which version of the work he/she wants to listen to at any given time. About six versions are possible from the 18 alternative tracks provided on the three CDs. By following a table printed in the back of the booklet (a few minutes' mental gymnastics are initially required) you can programme your CD player to replace particular arias with others.
Giustino is the Baroque version of a ‘ripping yarn’. The eponymous hero rises from ploughboy to emperor via an action-packed curriculum vitae that has him seeing visions, routing traitors, fighting bears and even slaying a sea-monster! Written in the autumn of 1736, shortly after Handel had suffered a period of ill-health, Giustino is not among his greatest operas, but it is thoroughly entertaining and offers much fine music. Particularly felicitous are Giustino’s bucolic aria ‘Può ben nascere tra li boschi’ and Anastasio’s lovely ‘O fiero e rio sospetto’. The headlong pace leaves Handel little time to develop the more sensual, amorous side of his music. One exception – and the opera’s most entrancing interlude – is the ravishing love duet in Act II, superbly sung here by Dorothea Röschmann (Arianna) and Dawn Kotoski (Anastasio). Michael Chance too is outstanding in the title role, proving that even countertenors can exude machismo. Nicholas McGegan coaxes a stylish performance from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Giustino is the fourth Handel opera he has now recorded following a staging at the Göttingen Festival and this is his most assured reading to date. Mention in the credits of a Bear Growl Advisor suggests a commendable attention to grizzly detail. (Graham Lock)
It is only a short while since I reviewed a suite of dances from Rameau's opera, Nais. Now, hard on the heels of that disc (also conducted by McGegan, Harmonia Mundi, 7/95) comes a reissue of the entire work, albeit with judicious cuts. Nais was commissioned to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, and first performed the following year. Thus it was a vocal counterpart to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, both pieces marking the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession. The present recording was made in 1980 following performances at London's Old Vic Theatre and at Versailles under the auspices of Lina Lalandi's enterprising English Bach Festival.
Agrippina (HWV 6) is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel with a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. Composed for the 1709–10 Venice Carnevale season, the opera tells the story of Agrippina, the mother of Nero, as she plots the downfall of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the installation of her son as emperor. Grimani's libretto, considered one of the best that Handel set, is an "anti-heroic satirical comedy", full of topical political allusions. Some analysts believe that it reflects Grimani's political and diplomatic rivalry with Pope Clement XI.
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759): Susanna. Oratorio. First performed 1749. Complete version including all the music that Handel later deleted. Performed by Lorraine Hunt and Jill Feldman, soprano, Drew Minter, countertenor, Jeffrey Thomas, tenor, David Thomas and William Parker, bass; the U.C. Berkely Chamber Choir; the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, San Francisco, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Recorded live in September, 1989, at the Hertz Hall at the University of California.
With over 30 of Handel’s operas awaiting a first CD recording, it seems indecent luxury to find two splendid new recordings of Ottone, a work in the vanguard of the German Handel opera revival in the 1920s, but long since relegated to obscurity. Both benefit immensely by being based on stage performances, Nicholas McGegan’s from the Göttingen Handel Festival, of which he is artistic director, Robert King’s from a production that successfully toured the UK and Japan. Broadly speaking, McGegan’s reading is distinguished by a compelling sense of drama and a wonderful feeling for Handelian style, sometimes at the expense of tonal beauty; King’s is smoother, occasionally letting the dramatic impetus flag, but offering playing of consistent strength and fine shading. McGegan, however, fields the marginally more convincing team of singers, led by Drew Minter, whose pure bright tone, breathtaking coloratura and ardent delivery give pleasure at every hearing; Bowman, for King, sings with sensitivity but his mannered tone and technical limitations are serious drawbacks. Conversely, Dominique Visse, for King, with his inimitable reedy timbre and impeccable musicianship, is matchless as Ottone’s rival in kingship, Adelberto, fine as Ralf Popken is for McGegan. Of the female roles, Claron McFadden produces a stream of radiant tone as Teofane; but so does Lisa Saffer, who, in addition, offers a wider range of colour. Both sets are recommendable, but Minter’s charismatic performance, Saffer’s deeper perceptions and the inclusion of arias Handel wrote for later revivals tip the balance in favour of McGegan. Whatever your choice, it’s an opera not to be missed. (Antony Bye)