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HANDEL: Atalanta

spacer Labelle, Rydén, van de Sant; Slattery, Cutlip, McKern; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorale, 
McGegan. Text and translation. PBP 04 (2)


Handel's vast operatic output, still an undifferentiated mass of music only a generation ago, has now become familiar repertoire onstage and on recordings. (Even the early, obscure Almira was revived in New York last season, by Operamission.) Atalanta, it turns out, has its own unique place among the operas. There is no complicated opera seria plot; in fact, there is virtually no action. It wouldn't stand up to the sort of intense staging that Orlando or Ariodante can bear. It is nothing more than an Arcadian idyll, made up of shepherds and hidden love. The two main characters are in disguise for nearly the entire three acts. Atalanta was created as a wedding divertissement, designed to end with fireworks and bonfires. It is more of a celebration than an opera. Three trumpet players, prominent in the overture, take a two-hour nap before waking up the timpanist for the extended finale, where there is an unusually large amount of choral participation. The royal couple onstage is given a happy ending, and so by extension is the royal couple in the audience. The ideal experience of Atalanta would involve a warm summer night and a cold poached chicken. Giulio Cesare it is not.

This live recording, taken from two performances given by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley in 2005, features two strong soprano soloists, but Atalanta was not one of Handel's Cuzzoni–Bordoni prima donna showcases. Meleagro, sung by Susanne Rydén, was originally a castrato role. Rydén sings the first part of her Act II aria "Si, mel raccorderò" with such delight and assurance that we don't wish for a lot of changes on the repeat, and indeed she does only the lightest rearranging. Rydén's Meleagro also gets to sing "M'allontano, sdegnose pupille." Of all the times Handel wrote an aria with the accompaniment of only continuo and a single violin line, this is one of the loveliest. Dominique Labelle sings Atalanta, a skilled huntress who bags a wild boar in the first scene. Labelle is very touching in the B section of "Lassa! Ch'io t'ho perduta," where the vocal figuration depicts a bird caught in a snare, and her performance of "Se nasce un rivoletto" is ingratiatingly sung with a light rhythmic freedom. Only on occasion, as in the repeat of "Bench'io non sappia ancor," is it difficult to hear how her ornamentation is meant to make the music more expressive.

The alto role of Irene finds Cécile van de Sant in a fine partnership with conductor Nicholas McGegan. Irene sings one of those turtledove simile arias, in which McGegan's fleet violins show great delicacy on high notes, and a flouncy aria of indignation, also well seconded by the strings. The male roles are shorter and less rewarding, but Philip Cutlip has liquid Italian diction, a nice approach to legato and a delightful non-aggressive approach to high notes in his entrance aria. As Nicandro, he is given an extra aria in Act III in place of Meleagro's "Tu solcasti il mare." The booklet notes are silent on this change, but it is good to hear Cutlip again. As Aminta, Michael Slattery is so eager to "act" his first aria that he goes over the top and becomes cavalier of pitch. He strikes a better balance in his second. Corey McKern's Mercurio arrives at the end of the show, all pretense of music drama having been abandoned, with a burst of energy. McGegan finds a breezy, lilting quality for the opening of Act II, and he avoids pomposity in the bloated finale. It's a discreet Vouvray rather than a White Zinfandel for the end of the operatic picnic. spacer


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