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Alice Coote: “Handel Arias”

spacer From Radamisto, Alcina, Hercules, Giulio Cesare and Ariodante. English Concert, Bicket. Texts and translations. Hyperion CDA 67979 

CooteHandelCD

Given that Alice Coote sings so beautifully, it is a surprise that this recital makes the listener think so often about words. There are hardly more than a dozen of them, for example, in the six-minute aria “Cara speme,” from Giulio Cesare, but Coote, singing impeccably all the while, first makes them evocative and then explores every way in which the expression could change. Conductor Harry Bicket has had his imagination fired by Coote’s multiple meanings, and in an aria such as “Verdi prati,” from Alcina, he is moved to find new interpretations for each occurrence of instrumental material. Something similar happens at the end of Coote’s devastating da capo repeat in “Scherza, infida,” from Ariodante, when the way she drains all color from her voice is seconded by Bicket’s bleached string tone in the coda, which now sounds like late Stravinsky. The album represents more than a new career achievement for Coote and Bicket; it represents the undisputed arrival of Handel’s operas as music dramas that can bear multiple interpretations, and it represents Handel as a birthright for today’s generation of artists. 

Some of the interpretations show the way an ever-increasing familiarity with this repertoire can lead to deeper insights. Ariodante was one of the first Handel operas to return to the repertory in the twentieth century. In “Con l’ali di costanza,” Coote expands on what her predecessors did with the da capo form. The opening is a portrait of health and vigor; the B section, more than a mere “contrast” in Coote’s hands, is sung as a complication and a moment of slight uncertainty, while the return of the A section builds on that interruption with an exuberance tempered by experience. But Coote and Bicket can go deeper than this. The most admirable thing about their performance of “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise,” from Hercules, is that it doesn’t seem like a performance at all. It is more like a sculpture, something that exists all at once, as if the audience could walk around all sides of it and take it all in together. Coote’s experience onstage in these works is obvious. In “Stà nell’Ircana,” from Alcina, she not only plays the literal meaning of the words with complete conviction; she shows us the dramatic situation in the opera and the subtext — that you don’t trifle with feelings — as well.

The Coote–Bicket partnership reaches its height in Dejanira’s mad scene from Hercules, in which Coote hears the shockingly abrupt cut-offs of the string chords and takes up the idea at her cries of “See, see, see.” He then eggs her on at the many repetitions of “no rest the guilty find,” which she first directs outward, then turns on herself. But the truly remarkable things about this album are the ones we don’t think about. The level of horn playing is so high that for a change the listener isn’t reminded how difficult the Baroque instrument is. And Coote’s sense of ornamentation is now so much ingrained in the rest of her artistry that this may be the first Handel recital in which the decorations don’t distract our attention — well, not until a line near the end of her timeless performance of “Cara speme” suddenly reverses course and rises like a puff of incense. Upon later analysis, it turns out that all she has done is merely fill in a bare octave with a simple E-flat major scale. That, ladies and gentlemen, is art. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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