Ann Hallenberg, il pomo d’oro, Stefano Montanari
129:56 [recte: 98:40!] (2 CDs in a cardboard box)
Pentatone PTC 5186 678
Music by Albinoni, Gaicomelli, Leo, Orlandini, Porpora & Vinci
The early music world has now become accustomed to the concept operatic recital, often designed around the repertoire of one of the great singers of the 18th century. This 2-disc set, devised by Helger Schmitt-Hallenberg, the musicologist husband of mezzo Ann Hallenberg, takes a rather different approach, concentrating on the repertoire given in Venice in the Carnival season of 1728/9. The choice could hardly have been shrewder. It was an extraordinary season that not only featured new works by some of the leading opera composers of the day – names such as Leonardo Leo, Geminiano Giacomelli, Tomaso Albinoni, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, Nicola Porpora and Leonardo Vinci – but a glittering array of star singers including Faustina Bordini and the castratos Senesino, Farinelli and Nicolini, Handel’s first Rinaldo. It is impossible to think of any festival today that could start to match such a line up.
The operas included that winter provide the Hallenbergs with a bountiful choice, it being noteworthy that despite the inclusion of composers who today are virtually unknown the musical quality is remarkably high throughout. Indeed, in the case of the extracts from an opera such as Leo’s Catone in Utica I suspect strongly that we are looking at a work that demands revival. The excerpts from Orlandini’s Adelaide also suggest an opera that would warrant further attention, though the eponymous heroine’s ‘Non sempre invendicata’, a Bordoni aria, is lifted from being a fairly conventional aria di furia by Hallenberg’s dazzling coloratura virtuosity and powerful chest notes.
The bar for the whole recital is set high from the first aria, ‘Mi par sentir’ from Gianguir by Giacomelli, a some-time pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti who apparently shared his master’s reputation for writing ‘difficult’ music. But there is nothing remotely difficult about this exquisitely lovely aria, which features an obbligato oboe (played here with a sensitivity that does not avoid the odd moment of sourness) and pizzicato strings. Hallenberg’s singing of it is a master-class in Baroque performance practice, with elegantly shaped phrasing and precise articulation of passaggi, along with an acute attention to text that should be studied by all aspiring singers of this repertoire. The variation of vocal colouring and subtlety of expression is also something to be wondered at; one need only listen to the different accentuation brought to ‘caro’, the final word of the A section, to be aware of an artist who has thought deeply about her performances. Here as elsewhere the ornamentation of the da capo is also an object lesson, with decoration that never steps beyond the bounds of taste to distort the melodic line.
The second excerpt from Adelaide brings a long and fine accompagnato to introduce the aria, it being projected with intense dramatic purpose, before moving into a beautiful cantabile aria, ‘Quanto bella’ with violin obbligato, splendidly played by Montanari. Here one notes especially Hallenberg’s superb mezzo voce and her precise articulation of the chain of trills that remind us of the inadequacy of most vocal performances of Baroque music, where one is lucky to hear a trill, let alone a whole sequence of them.
It would be possible, if idle, to subject every track on this peerless set to such commentary. These are performances to hear, not talk about. Suffice it to say there is much more treasure here, ranging from three arias from Porpora’s marvellous Semiramide riconosciuta to a gloriously spun performance of Emilia’s heartbreakingly lovely ‘Ombra cara’ from Leo’s Catone in Utica, where Hallenberg’s splendidly secure upper range comes into its own. Il pomo d’oro provides fine support throughout, with some truly Italianate legatos where appropriate. Finally, don’t take any notice of the timings for the two CDs given on the box, which are wildly inaccurate. The (very short) total timing is that given in my heading. No matter. This is a superlative set that demands to be in every collection of Baroque opera enthusiasts. Were Ann Hallenberg working within the parameters of mainstream opera I have for some while had absolutely no doubt that she would be rated among today’s great singers.