Serpent & Fire – Arias for Dido & Cleopatra

Anna Prohaska soprano, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini
Alpha 250
Music by da Castrovillari, Cavalli, Graupner, Handel, Hasse. Locke, Purcell & Sartorio

The idea of devoting opera recitals to characters is fairly recent. It’s an excellent one, too, since it encourages us to think more about the person being portrayed and the various aspects of their character. Most notably we’ve had award-winning recordings devoted to Semiramide by Anna Bonitatibus’ and to Agrippina by Ann Hallenberg. Now soprano Anna Prohaska turns her attention to arguably the two most famous of all operatic heroines, Cleopatra and Dido. Beyond the fact that both are African queens who took their own lives they have little in common: one is fact, the other mythological; one is a femme fatale, a byword for her sexual allure and playful approach to love, the other a wife who has remained loyal to her dead husband and also the archetypal abandoned woman.

The present selection concentrates on operas spanning a period from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century. The earliest comes from Cavalli’s Didone  of 1641, a scena  addressed not to Aeneas but Iarbas, the would-be lover rejected in Virgil, but who in fact wins Dido’s hand in the lieto fine  of Cavalli’s mixed-genre opera. The next Dido  opera is Purcell’s from which there are two extracts (‘Ah Belinda’ and of course Dido’s lament), while the are four extracts from Graupner’s first opera, Dido, Königin von Karthago, first given in Hamburg in 1707, one an intensely dramatic and trenchant tempesta  aria in which Dido compares herself with a storm-tossed ship, a favourite conceit. Indeed it is repeated in the coloratura aria for Araspe, the confidant of Iarbas, in his aria from the most famous of all Dido librettos, Metastasio’s Didone abbandonata  (set more then 60 times) in Hasse’s version of 1742.

The earliest Cleopatra opera here is a rarity, La Cleopatra  by Daniele da Castrovillari, a Venetian Franciscan monk and a name new to me. First given in Venice in 1662, it is his sole surviving opera. Not surprisingly, the long scena  in which Cleopatra prepares for death is suggestive of the music of Cavalli, but the vocal ritornello scheme is interesting, the piece overall compelling. Dating from 15 years later, the two arias from Sartorio’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto  of 1677 show Cleopatra in light-hearted, kittenish mood, in complete contrast to ‘Se pietà’ from Handel’s 1724 setting of the same libretto by Francesco Bussani, the greatest of all Cleopatra operas. Just a year later comes Hasse’s serenata Antonio e Cleopatra, one of his first dramatic works. ‘Morte col fiero’ is a fiery show of coloratura defiance in the face of death.

I have mixed feelings about the performances. The German soprano Anna Prohaska sings a wide variety of roles and is not particularly noted as an exponent of early opera, though she has sung Poppea in Handel’s Agrippina. On the plus side the vocal timbre is lovely – creamy and lustrous without being too fulsome for this repertoire. At their best, as in the central section of ‘Se pietà’ or, perhaps more surprisingly, the Cavalli, these are most engaging performances. She copes well with coloratura as well, the showy ‘Morte col fiero’ in general coming off successfully, though there’s a nasty screamed top note in the da capo  repeat. But what worries me more is a tendency to slide down off the note in slower, more sustained music, often making the music sound lugubrious and heavy. Prohaska’s pitch in general is not infallible, while her diction is not all it might be either and although she overall shows a good grasp of ornamentation her attempted trills are apt to sound like bleating.

This being Il Giardino Armonico we expect and indeed get some eccentricities, some not especially helpful to the singer. Antonini also does some tinkering with some of the scores, not being able to resist adding recorder parts (played by himself) to several of the scores. But the actual playing, both accompanying Prohaska and in a number of instrumental interludes, is of the highest quality. Several of these seem to have been chosen arbitrarily, it being difficult, for example, to see the relevance of Matthew Locke’s incidental music to The Tempest  in this context. Still, it does provide an opportunity to hear some ravishingly rapt playing in the Curtain Tune from the Second Musick, an account that comes into the category of ‘naughty but (very) nice’. Not perfect, then, but plenty to appeal to anyone interested in Baroque opera.

Brian Robins