Véronique Gens, Ensemble Les Surprises, Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
Alpha Classics Aplha 747

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Lully’s music dominates this ‘imaginary opera’ in a recital of arias grouped by mood/subject into five ‘acts’. Véronique Gens came to fame as an exponent of this repertoire: opinion will be divided as to whether her voice as it now is (strikingly successful in Mozart, Verdi and Wagner) is still as effective and appropriate here as it once was.

My own view is that even though the premières actrices and grandes dessus whom she seeks to emulate undoubtedly sang with great passion, a singer with modern training could perhaps be more restrained in early repertoire and seek to get a little closer to the sonic world of the orchestra. The same goes for the choir.

However, despite these reservations and my dislike of the tamperings with the instrumentation, I have to say that, on its own terms, this is a brilliant performance of an excellent programme.

The booklet (essays in French, English and German, though sung texts are only printed in French and English) offers the artists adequate support though the graphic designer should know that a page of text in capital letters is not easy to read and eliminates the possibility of highlighting important names by their initial letter.

David Hansell


Royal Handel

Eva Zaïcik mezzo-soprano, Le Consort
Alpha Classics Alpha 662
+arias by Ariosti and Giovanni Bononcini

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Eva Zaïcik is a young French mezzo whose cv suggests she might have originally had ideas of becoming an early music specialist, but whose more recent work includes a debut as Carmen in Toulouse and appearances in Pique Dame and Eugene Onegin.  Having heard this CD my guess is that the latter type of repertoire is more likely to become mainstream for her. In full flow the voice is a richly opulent instrument, with a hint of edge to it in the middle register, which itself does not always sit in comfortable relationship with the soprano register. In Baroque repertoire Zaïcek’s voice is on this evidence at its most beguiling singing mezza voce, where the ear experiences a purity of tone and line not always apparent elsewhere. But in general terms neither her technique nor her approach to the mostly Handel arias on the present CD convince that she is truly at home with it. While there is an admirable flexibility and passaggi are in general well articulated, her approach to ornamentation is haphazard, cadences go unembellished and of course there is no hint of a trill. Not that Zaïcek is alone in that respect. As bad is her approach to text or more accurately non-approach. Contrary to the needs of these arias, the performances seem driven by the desire to make a beautiful, lustrous sound. Aria after aria passes with little attempt to explore its emotional core or meaningfully articulate its text.

In this respect, the singer is hardly aided by her choice of accompanists. Le Consort is one of those small French ensembles bearing no relationship to the size of an average 18th-century opera orchestra. It is also characteristic of so many ensembles today in that Le Concert appears to feel it necessary to play quick music very fast and slower numbers excessively slowly. Thus an aria such as ‘Rompo i lacci’ from Flavio is taken so fast as to render it virtually meaningless, despite some agile passagework from Zaïcek, while the funereal tempo and emasculated rhythm adopted for ‘Ombra cara’ (Radamisto) leaves the aria as little more than a glutinous, sentimental wallow.  There are two compensating factors. One is that mezza voce, where the lighter tonal palette can produce exquisite results, nowhere more so than the central section and da capo of ‘Deggio morire’ (Siroe), where criticism is silenced, the listener seduced into luxurious immersion in the sheer beauty of the moment. The other is the inclusion of first recordings of arias by two composers that along with Handel also contributed operas to the first Royal Academy in London (1719-28), the source of the CD’s title. Both Attilio Ariosti and Giovanni Bononcini scored significant successes in its early years and ‘Sagri numi’ from Ariosto’s Caio Marzio Coriolano (1723) is a ravishingly lovely discovery, though as with all the cantabile numbers it is sentimentalized and taken too deliberately.

If the response to this CD is perhaps a little harsh at times, it stems from the depressing regularity with which so many of today’s younger singers seemingly come to Baroque repertoire as a kind of warm-up for bigger, later parts. Such singers need to be taught to recognise that Baroque opera has its own demands that need to be met if they are going to do it more justice than simply winning cheap applause from mainstream critics and audiences.

Brian Robins


Vivaldi: Tamerlano

Bruno Taddia Bajazet, Filippo Mineccia Tamerlano, Delphine Galou Asteria, Sophie Ennert Irene, Marina De Liso Andronico, Arianna Vendittelli Idaspe, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone
Vivaldi Edition vol. 65
155:00 (3 CDs in a box)
OP 7080

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Volume 65 of naïve’s remarkable Vivaldi integrale brings us one of the last of the complete opera’s still to be recorded. Il Tamerlano is one of Vivaldi’s later operas composed not for Venice but the historic Accademia Filharmonica of Verona, whose appointment of Vivaldi as impresario for the 1735 Carnival season resulted in two operas, Adelaide and Il Tamerlano, both probably premiered in January.

Of the now lost Adelaide, we know nothing beyond the fact its libretto is most likely by Antonio Salvi (a text set by Handel as Lotario in 1729), while Il Tamerlano is a pasticcio assembled by Vivaldi from previously composed operas of his own and those of Giacomelli (3 arias), Hasse (3) and Riccardo Broschi, Farinelli’s brother, two of whose arias were incorporated. They are all identified in the booklet, though it’s quite fun to listen first and see how many one can identify as not being by Vivaldi. One of the most remarkable to my mind is ‘Sposa son disprezzata’ (As a bride I am despised), taken from Giacomelli’s Merope (Venice, 1734). It is an aria for Irene, the woman abandoned by her fiancée Tamerlano for Asteria, the daughter of the imprisoned Bajazet, who he has conquered in battle. Full of stabbing pain and dissonance, it serves as a reminder that Giacomelli still remains undeservedly neglected. Vivaldi was thus left with just the recitatives, including several accompagnati, to compose from the libretto by Agostino Piovene, a book first set by Gasparini as Il Bajazet in 1711 and subsequently by several others composers including Handel in 1724. The piecemeal nature of Il Tamerlano thus serves to remind present-day opera lovers that far from being a despised form it is often characterised as today, the 18th-century pasticcio was a valid form in itself, utilised by just about every major opera composer of the day, including of course Handel.

The reason it was possible to swap arias from one opera to another is because arias fall almost exclusively into one of two forms: generic expressions of human emotions such as love, hate, jealousy and so on, emotional expressions obviously as valid today as they were in the 18th century; or more impersonal so-called ‘simile’ arias that compared feelings or impressions with something in nature, like a storm at sea. Plot came a long way behind poetic expression and Il Bajazet is unusual in this period in having a strong, direct storyline that concerns the all-conquering Tamerlano’s relationships with the defeated, yet still proud and stubborn Sultan Bajazet and his daughter Asteria, the true heroes of the story (the original libretto was called Il Bajazet). Only with the death of Bajazet does Tamerlano renounce his philandering and turn to being the nobly forgiving and repentant ruler the sentiment of opera per dramma dictates he must finally be.

Ottavio Dantone and his Accademia Bizantina have for a while now been the performers of choice for the operas in the Vivaldi Edition (along with a number of orchestral issues). It is not difficult to see why. In 2019 they produced a superlative account of Il Giustino (1724), an issue matched by this Il Tamerlano, which might be described in a single word: electrifying. Rarely does a studio recording have the febrile excitement we encounter here, a performance in which Dantone has galvanized every one of his performers into singing or playing with an intensity that ranges from anger to distress, from tenderness to evocation of the gentleness of the turtledove. It is founded on Dantone’s belief in the sanctity of text, a belief that provides a foundation for all his opera performances and which involves extensive work on recitative. Virtually every word is invested with meaning and expressed by an outstanding cast that has bought totally into the approach. It would be difficult to envisage more convincing performances of Bajazet, originally a role for tenor, but here commandingly sung by the light baritone Bruno Taddia, of Asteria, a glowing, finely-nuanced assumption by Delphine Galou or the supremely accomplished Tamerlano of Filippo Mineccia, now surely well up near the top of the countertenor league in a crowded field. Of the remaining roles soprano Marina De Liso is a near-flawless Andronico, the Greek Prince who would save Bajazet and loves and is loved by Asteria. Arianna Vendittelli (Idaspe) and Sophie Rennert (Irene) complete a cast that matches Dantone’s fervent advocacy, though neither is free from the common failure of lack of vocal control above the stave. It remains only to note that ornaments are mostly fluently and stylishly added, though as usual cadential (and other) trills are largely noticeable by their absence. But we do get an even more rarely heard ornament from Vendittelli in the shape of a perfectly executed messa di voce in Idaspe’s opening aria.

It hardly needs saying in conclusion that Dantone’s Il Tamerlano is a magnificent achievement, unquestionably one of the most important issues of a wretched 2020 redeemed in part by some truly remarkable recordings.

Brian Robins


Monteverdi: Orfeo

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro Orfeo, Emőke Baráth Euridice/Musica, Natalie Pérez Messaggiera, Alix Le Saux Speranza/Pastore iii, Jérôme Varnier Caronte/Spirito, Mathilde Etienne Proserpina, Nicolas Brooymans Plutone/Pastore iv, Fulvio Bettini Apollo/Spirito/Eco, Zachary Wilder Pastore i/Spirito, Juan Sancho Pastore ii/Spirito, Alicia Amo Ninfa, Ensemble Vocal de Poche, I Gemelli
97:00 (2 CDs in a single case within a card folder with booklet)
naïve V 7176

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From the opening triple statement of the Toccata, crisply articulated and introducing variants of instrumentation for each stanza, it seems likely that this will be an imaginative version of Monteverdi’s first opera. And so it proves. It is the brain child of tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, who not only sings the title role but directs his recently formed (2018) and excellent early music ensemble I Gemelli. In a note in the booklet Toro explains that it has been a career-long ambition to stage Orfeo, an ambition fulfilled in 2019 when it was given in Paris and Toulouse in a production by Mathilde Etienne, who not also sings a gently persuasive and touching Proserpine but is also responsible for an exceptionally scholarly booklet note. The present studio recording is based on those performances. 

The promise of the Toccata is maintained in a Prologue that is beautifully delivered by Emőke Baráth’s La Musica, each stanza of her varied verses in the recently-arrived stile recitativo inflected with real understanding of the text and incorporating little touches of ornamentation. With the arrival of the chorus that will play a major role in the wedding celebrations of Orfeo and Euridice, the opera moves to its Janus-like stance of looking both forward and backward. While the big opening chorus, ‘Vieni Imeneo’ is homophonic, many of the choruses are madrigalian and here Toro has clearly differentiated them by employing an outstanding one-per-part ensemble drawn from his soloists. It is a measure of how Toro has obviously thought deeply about the opera when he drops the continuo accompaniment entirely for the final lines of the tragic conclusion of act 2 – ‘Ahi caso acerbo …’ (Ah, bitter blow…), thus providing a stunning peroration and compounding further the profound emotional impact of all that has happened since the arrival of Messaggiera (the excellent Natalie Pérez) with news of the death of Euridice. Momentarily looking back to the wedding festivities, I do feel Toro takes some of the madrigalian choruses too swiftly, ‘Lasciate i monti’, being a particular example.

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is a rare example of a singer seemingly equally at home in French and Italian Baroque opera. In some ways Orfeo, with its continuous stream of recitative, arioso and choruses is closer in outline to the French style, doubtless one reason Toro is so fond of it. He brings to the role only not a an exceptionally well-produced voice of great beauty, but a temperament well equipped to intensify (and release) emotion when called upon to do so. This feature is at its peak in act 3, of which of course the great florid outpouring of ‘Possente spirto’ forms the axis of the opera, not for nothing placed at its exact central point. Like all self-respecting Orfeo’s Toro of course sings Monteverdi’s heavily ornamented version and needless to say sings it well, though he does tend to skate over some of the very dense, fast moving passaggi. It is in fact perhaps the major weakness of the set that none of the singers is totally satisfying in respect of ornamentation. This defect is particularly acute at cadences, invariably left unadorned and thus leaving endings pallid and uninteresting. Returning to Toro’s Orfeo in that critical third act, it is at moments of heightened emotion that it is at its most truly compelling. Listen for example to the hopeless desperation in the voice at the end of Speranza’s aria; ‘Dove, ah, dove t’en vai’ … (Where, o where are you going …). At the end of ‘Possente spirto’ Monteverdi’s ornamented version finishes on the words ‘O de lei mei luci sereni’… (O clear light of my eyes…). At this point Orfeo’s use of his musical prowess to seduce Charon (Jérôme Varnier) ends and the poignant, bitter truth takes over; it’s a moment Toro takes full advantage of, as he does the great outburst of passion after Charon’s response, ‘Ahi, sveturato amante…’ (Alas, unhappy lover that I am …

There are many other moments in Toro’s performance that might be highlighted, and I’m sure it will repay further study. Equally impressive is the care with which he has ensured that all his excellent cast has been carefully coached to remember the critical maxim in this music – prima le parole, poi la musica. Were it not for the lack of ornamentation this might have become my favourite version, but it is an important flaw. It is salutary that for a more stylish approach to embellishment it is necessary to go back to Nigel Rogers’ 1984 outstanding recording on EMI, interestingly another version where the Orfeo also undertook the musical direction (with Charles Medlam).

Brian Robins


Baroque opera’s secrets

Our regular reviewer Brian Robins has just posted a video on YouTube, ‘Toward a Greater Understanding of Baroque Opera’ – highly recommended for all lovers of the genre and readers of his reviews.

Click this link to watch the video: