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GRAMOPHONE (04/2021)
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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp

Let’s be honest. Whoever came up with the title for this release needs to think again. ‘Royal Handel’? That’s odes, coronation anthems, Water Music, right? Surely not the vibrant and intensely expressive arias Handel wrote for the London opera company that lasted from 1719 to 1729, known as the Royal Academy of Music. But really, ‘royal’ is not the point here. What we have is a shrewdly chosen sequence of arias that are far from being the most familiar among Handel’s output, but show his imaginative genius in every bar. Even the two arias by Ariosti and one by Bononcini, also written for the Academy, are of revelatory high quality, and together with the Handel convey the artistic confidence the members and supporters of the Royal Academy must have had in a future for Italian opera in London. Whoever devised or advised on these repertoire choices deserves hearty congratulation.

But of course this is also a showcase for French mezzo-soprano Eva Zaïcik, which makes the absence of Handelian warhorses all the more admirable. Zaïcik has not made many recordings yet; but where she has appeared in larger productions – for instance Raphaël Pichon’s Monteverdi Vespers or singing Rossi on Vincent Dumestre’s ‘Anamorfosi’ album (A/19) – she has attracted favourable comment. And rightly so. She has a clear, well-supported voice that can cut through the air decisively and attractively, whether in fast-driven heroic arias of jealousy or revenge or in tender laments for lost liberty or love. Her virtuosity in running passagework or angular leaps is very impressive, and while it is not hard to notice the controlled strength of her lower register, this is a quality that runs throughout her range. Best of all, she has a true and natural feel for the music, not only how to project and ornament it but most importantly how to use it as a powerfully effective means of expression. Beyond the translations, Alpha’s booklet gives no help with contexts for these arias but such is Zaïcik’s communicativeness that you hardly feel you need them. The playing of Le Consort, under Justin Taylor, is a perfect match both technically and musically, contributing significantly to a release that gives nothing but pleasure.


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