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GRAMOPHONE (11/2022)
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Reviewer :
Richard Wigmore

Italian opera in London was still on a precarious footing when Handel staged Amadigi in May 1715. Fickle aristocratic audiences expected visual as well as vocal titillation. Handel’s two most successful London operas up to that point, Rinaldo and Teseo, had duly traded in spectacular – and vastly expensive – scenic effects. Dominated by the sorceress Melissa, Amadigi followed suit. A proto-Alcina, Melissa is set on luring the knight Amadigi (a castrato role) from his beloved Oriana, abetted by the slippery Prince Dardano, who desires Oriana for himself. True love inevitably triumphs, though it is the impulsive, conflicted, ultimately tragic figure of Melissa who lingers in the imagination. Her death casts a shadow over the ostensibly joyful closing scene.

Although Christian Curnyn conducted a production at Garsington in summer 2021, Amadigi has always remained on the Handelian margins. One reason, perhaps, is that it contains no parts for tenors or basses. There are flaws in pacing and dramatic logic. But its four main characters (there is also a blink-and-you-miss-it role for the deus ex machina sorcerer Orgando) are strongly drawn, their motivations and interactions largely clear. And as Charles Burney, quoted in David Vickers’s informative note, first pointed out, the level of musical invention is consistently high, above all in the many slow, introspective arias in which Handel was supreme.

On disc Amadigi was pretty well served three decades ago by Marc Minkowski and a cast that included the young Nathalie Stutzmann in the title-role. This newversion, recorded in a more spacious acoustic, surpasses it vocally and orchestrally. Buoyed by a supple, strongly directed bass line, the playing of Curnyn’s Early Opera Company, technically impeccable, has that much more colour and fire than Minkowski’s Musiciens du Louvre. Curnyn’s cast of expert Handelians is self-recommending. In a performance both commanding and sympathetic, Mary Bevan catches each fluctuating emotion of Handel’s scorned sorceress: from yearning tenderness (in her opening ‘Ah! spietato’, dialoguing with Katharina Spreckelsen’s plangent oboe), through triumphant mockery (in the rollicking jig ‘Io godo’) to the vengeful fury of ‘Vanne lunghi’, geed on by spitting violins. Draining her tone of colour, Bevan is profoundly touching in the halting, fractured phrases of Melissa’s death scene.

Amadigi is not the only Handel castrato hero to emerge as a largely passive figure. But from his opening invocation to night he has some ravishing music. Though Stutzmann, for Minkowski, is more vivid with the Italian text, Tim Mead’s honeyed countertenor and refined phrasing give consistent pleasure. His pastoral cavatina with lulling recorders at the start of Act 2, ‘Sussurrate, onde vezzose’, is as dulcet as you could wish. At the other end of the spectrum, Mead jousts brilliantly with oboe and trumpet in his final aria, first cousin to the famous Hornpipe in the Water Music.

Like Bevan, Anna Dennis, as the devoted Oriana, surpasses her opposite number in Minkowski’s recording both in vocal beauty and dramatic involvement. She brings a wondering delicacy to her exquisite love song ‘Oh caro mio tesor’ and tellingly darkens her tone for Oriana’s lament ‘S’estinto’, a number that drove Charles Burney to raptures. With her strong, no-nonsense contralto, Hilary Summers makes a compelling Dardano, who, typically of Handel, does not entirely forfeit the audience’s sympathy. His moment of glory is the grieving sarabande ‘Pena tiranna’, coloured by keening, coiling oboe and bassoon. Rivalling Summers in eloquence, Spreckelsen and Zoe Shevlin here epitomise the close dramatic interplay between voice and orchestra that is a prime feature of this whole, superb performance.



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