Lucy Crowe: "Il Caro Sassone: Handel in Italy"
Arias, motets and sonatas by Handel. The English Concert, Bicket. Texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi 907559
English soprano Lucy Crowe is a young artist of formidable gifts and promise. In recent years she's had a string of Covent Garden successes and made notable debuts in Munich, Berlin, Salzburg, Dijon and Paris. Though Mozart and Baroque repertory have been her usual calling cards, she is also establishing a name for herself as Strauss's Sophie and is taking on Verdi's Gilda. She made a pleasant impression at BAM in Purcell's Fairy Queen but proved particularly exciting and moving as Iole in Hercules for her March 2011 debutat Lyric Opera of Chicago, under the fluent, stylish baton of Harry Bicket.
Harmonia Mundi's new disc represents a further collaboration between Crowe and Bicket, here leading his extremely skillful English Concert. The idea is interesting — to present music from the peripatetic Saxon composer's formative years in Italy (1706–10), mainly spent executing commissions for ecclesiastical, theatrical and chamber music in Florence, Naples and Venice. Later operas and oratorios often bear traces (up through direct borrowings), particularly of the tuneful sinfonie, arias and duets he penned for secular cantatas in those years. Bicket, well known for his propulsive but disciplined and invigorating conducting throughout Europe and North America, returned to the Met this season for Rodelinda, his 2004 debut vehicle. Often, as a reviewer, I complain about orchestral numbers taking up space on so-designated aria discs (which this CD is not), but here the eleven splendid minutes of string sonatas prove among the most compelling reasons to hear this release.
The collaborations with Crowe, while enjoyable on the level of pure sound, leave a more equivocal impression. She sings the cantatas Armida Abbandonata (probably written for Durastanti, later a staple of Handel's London seasons) and Alpestre Monte and a 1707 Salve Regina, plus arias from four other works, cantatas and oratorios. These works are far from over-used on recordings. (However, "Lascia la spina," from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, is the source material for Rinaldo's evergreen "Lascia ch'io pianga": the A sections are nearly identical.) Crowe, exhibiting near-flawless intonation, also shows in terms of timbre some well-developed trills and coloratura; check out the technically impressive organ-accompanied third section of the Salve Regina. One slight demerit: occasional high sustained notes show a mild tonal "wow." More troublesome, too often she goes the Emma Kirkby route, adopting a bloodless King's College choirboy sound, with minimal vibrato. Her grating "British Italian" does not inhabit recitative passages convincingly. In the well-vocalized cantilena sections, Crowe's diction — and indeed her legato — often sounds manipulated and droopy. Again, fast passages, such as the trumpet-festooned A sections from La Resurrezione's showpiece, prove that Crowe can "get the lead out" when she chooses and commands a stunning messa di voce. Crowe gives slightly more bite to the rollicking "Barbaro," from Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, but a comparison with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's version under Nicholas McGegan finds Crowe less natural in utterance and less plush throughout the range than the American mezzo. Surely with more linguistic seasoning this highly gifted singer can deliver more evenly and idiomatically in this respect. The final cut, the lovely "Se vago io," from Aminta e Fillide (1706–08), is beautifully if nearly incomprehensibly vocalized by Crowe; its gently pizzicato-driven tension anticipates Pedrillo's "Im Mohrenland" in Mozart's Entführung. Crowe comes to the Met next season as Mozart's Servilia in La Clemenza di Tito, a role that could exhibit her lovely, pure voice to advantage.