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HANDEL: Alcina, Tamerlano 

CD Button Piau, Karthäuser, Hallenberg, Beaumont, Galou, Noldis; Dumaux, Ovenden; Les Talens Lyriques, Rousset. Productions: Audi. Alpha 715 (Blu-ray), 188 mins. and 190 mins., subtitled

Recordings Tamerlano hdl 717
You call that a knife?: Karthäuser as Asteria
© Bernd Uhlig
Recordings Tamerlano Cover 717

ALTHOUGH THESE TWO Pierre Audi productions of Handel operas were not conceived as a pair for their Drottningholm debuts, they’ve been presented that way in Brussels and at Dutch National Opera, and now they’ve been released together on Blu-ray. Their similarities are only superficial. Audi’s set designs consist of little more than a series of receding archways. Sometimes, as in Act II of Alcina, there’s nothing onstage but a single chair; sometimes, there’s nothing at all. Mostly, Audi offers visual metaphors for the emotions and power relationships of the characters by putting the singers in carefully arranged tableaux (sometimes astutely, sometimes merely prettily), or by isolating them in pools of light against the darkness. The costumes represent Handel’s day, but the gestures are standard for our time.

The more interesting decisions involve the music. Presumably in consultation with conductor Christophe Rousset, Audi has reshaped each work. Given that Alcina is now a repertory opera, most listeners know that it’s multifaceted, with elements of fantasy, romance, family tragedy and magic. Here, by excising nine movements of dance music and the final chorus, the work becomes unusually somber and ends in a hopelessness alien to the opera. There’s also some reordering of arias, but nothing as serious as what Audi and Rousset have done with Tamerlano. Originally a three-act opera, the piece is presented here in two parts. For most of the first, the creative team has made the questionable decision to play the story as farce. Then the character Irene, the promised bride of Tamerlano, unexpectedly leaves the stage after the B section of her aria “Par che mi nasca in seno.” Then she returns, because she has more to say with the repeat of the A section. The other characters return too, as if to find out whether her words also apply to them. 

After intermission, in a last bit of whimsy, Leonte sings his aria in front of the curtain. But soon we are reminded that this is one of Handel’s darkest operas. A long section of recitative, one of the longest Handel wrote, is not shirked (although there are trims elsewhere). Rousset gives the final ensemble a melting, ambiguous expression. The first half of the evening was perplexing, but perhaps the emotion of the finale couldn’t have been earned any other way.

There are four dozen da capo and dal segno arias between these two operas, prompting a few observations. One is that Audi seldom trusts the stage to a single performer. Eavesdroppers, silent partners and judgmental observers are everywhere. It’s often too much, but as a result, Alcina’s Act II finale, “Ah mio cor”—one of the few times Audi puts a lone singer onstage—is mesmerizing. Another observation is that Handel interpretation may be moving out of a period in which “ornamentation” has too often meant complete rewriting of melodies over the same harmonies, or an overdecorated return of the opening material that quickly loses conviction. There are sometimes more sophisticated ideas here, as when Maite Beaumont’s Ruggiero uses rhythmic flexibility and the teasing of dissonances as a type of ornamentation, or Delphine Galou’s Andronico uses tone, intonation and releases of notes as expressive devices. And instrumentalists are starting to have a persuasive approach as well, with cellist Emmanuel Jacques offering an extraordinary coda to Morgana’s “Credete al mio dolore.” 

Along with Sandrine Piau’s star-quality Alcina, Sabina Puértolas is the rare soprano who not only has the showmanship for “Tornami a vagheggiar” but can sustain Morgana’s Act III aria. Daniel Behle’s Oronte is appealing in the way he sings his coloratura lightly rather than bulldozingly. With so much time onstage and so little to sing, Giovanni Furlanetto’s Melisso carries much of the show with his facial expressions, and the Bradamante of Angélique Noldus is no mere second mezzo. In Tamerlano, the leading role of Bajazet is sung by Jeremy Ovenden, who is too inclined to speak and lose pitch. His simplest moment, a brief arietta in Act III, is his best. The Asteria, Sophie Karthäuser, has an expressive face but an incongruously modern vocal production. Galou’s Andronico walks away with the show vocally, although her bodily contortions can be disturbing.

Throughout, Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques demonstrate unwavering affection for the music, and the continuo group (sometimes left to its own devices in Handel’s unbelievable variety of music) -is astonishing. Handel ran out of years, but he never ran out of ideas.  —William R. Braun 

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