Handel: Alcina, Ezio and Rodrigo | CD review

(DG and Ambroisie)

Handel: Alcina
Sutherland/Wunderlich/ Cappella Coloniensis/ Leitner
5 stars
(DG, two CDs) £22.50
Buy Alcina at the Guardian shop

Handel: Ezio
Gauvin/Hallenberg/Giustiniani/Il Complesso Barocco/Curtis
4 stars
(DG, three CDs) £24.45
Buy Ezio at the Guardian shop

Handel: Rodrigo
Wesseling/Bayo/Cencic/Von Rensburg/Al Ayre Español/López Banzo
3 stars
(Ambroisie, three CDs) £24.45
Buy Rodrigo at the Guardian shop

Composers' anniversaries are often marked by the unearthing and reassessment of rarities in their outputs. The phenomenon is, of course, nothing new and among the latest crop of Handel recordings, issued to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his death, we find the first commercial release of Ferdinand Leitner's famous Cologne Radio production of Alcina, broadcast during his bicentenary in 1959. Alcina is nowadays considered to be one of Handel's greatest works, so it comes as a bit of a jolt to realise that 50 years ago, it was an unknown quantity, and that this was one of the performances that put it back on the map.

Starring Joan Sutherland as Alcina and Fritz Wunderlich as Ruggiero, it has long been popular on the bootleg circuit, though purists have also often pointed out its idiosyncrasies: half an hour's music is cut; Morgana's showpiece Tornami a Vaggheggiar is reallocated to Alcina so Sutherland can sing it; Ruggiero's role, written for an alto castrato, is transposed for Wunderlich, the finest of postwar German tenors. Yet its reputation as one of the greatest Handel performances is entirely justified. Sutherland, sounding galactic and supernatural, stops you in your tracks with every utterance, while Wunderlich rages, swoons and finally abandons passion for reason in ways that break your heart. The remastering is tremendous, too.

Whether the new recordings of Ezio and Rodrigo will have a comparable impact is questionable. Neither is a masterpiece. Ezio flopped at its 1732 premiere, and its subject and style don't always sit easily together. Ezio is a Roman general who returns from war to find his beloved Fulvia being sexually pestered by the emperor Valentiniano. She and Ezio are, in fact, unwitting victims of a plot contrived by her father Massimo: Valentiniano once raped his wife; his revenge is to play on Ezio's jealousy and con him into assassinating the emperor. Dramatically, what we have is a neoclassical thriller, but rather than being hurtling, tense and insightful, the score is slow, reflective and at times diffuse. And apart from the conflicted Massimo, none of the characters has much psychological depth. It's wonderfully done, though, with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco admirably capturing its sombre mood and some very flamboyant singing from Karina Gauvin (Fulvia) and Ann Hallenberg (Ezio).

Rodrigo, meanwhile, was written in 1707, during Handel's Italian period, and is very much the work of a young composer still finding his operatic feet. It too kicks off with a general - a Spaniard called Giuliano - returning from battle to something dreadful at home, in this case that his sister Florinda has had an illegitimate child by the Castilian king Rodrigo. Giuliano and Rodrigo are soon opponents in a civil war. Place the opera beside Handel's Italian oratorios and you immediately notice its stylistic inconsistencies, and its variability is further highlighted by a very uneven recording, with Maria Riccarda Wesseling's dramatically bland, if technically proficient Rodrigo its principal drawback. Al Ayre Español, directed from the harpsichord by Eduardo López Banzo, play with considerable flair and Maria Bayo makes an impressive stab at Rodrigo's wife's atrociously difficult arias. The best singing comes from Kobie van Rensburg's Giuliano and Max Emanuel Cencic as Rodrigo's general Fernando.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Handel: Arias | CD review

This album comes with the subtitle Mezzo-Soprano Opera Arias, which is actually a misnomer as all the characters here are men, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

08, Apr, 2010 @9:05 PM

Handel: Agrippina – review
René Jacobs's controversial account of Agrippina, based on Handel's first autograph score, is not altogether convincing, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

13, Oct, 2011 @8:30 PM

Handel: Opera Arias – review
Recital discs devoted to Handel may abound, but few are as comprehensively impressive as this one, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

23, Dec, 2010 @9:45 PM

Classical review: Handel: Alcina: DiDonato/Gauvin/Beaumont

No other composer quite so effortlessly combines pleasure with profundity, says Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

09, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM

Berlioz: Les Nuits d'Été; Handel: Arias from Giulio Cesare; Ottone; Arianne; Radamisto and Agrippina – review
The Handel arias here are glorious, exquisitely polished performances, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

30, Jun, 2011 @7:29 PM

Handel: Berenice | Classical CD review
Although not considered one of Handel's great triumphs, this superb recording of Berenice is worth the asking price for Klara Ek's blazing performance alone, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

12, Aug, 2010 @9:44 PM

Handel: Alexander's Feast | CD review

The latest addition to Joachim Carlos Martini and the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra's oratorios for Naxos is a brave, if not always successful, attempt at a difficult work, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

11, Mar, 2010 @10:15 PM

Too much to Handel

Its effect is horrible, said Shaw; it made Berlioz grind his teeth and curse. Should we call time on our obsession with Handel's music, asks Andrew Huth.

Andrew Huth

06, Apr, 2007 @10:58 PM

Article image
CD: Handel, Arias

(EMI)

Tim Ashley

09, Aug, 2007 @11:12 PM

Classical review: Handel: Arias: Villazón/ Gabrieli/ Players/ McCreesh

Villazón sings everything with intensity and fire, says Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

09, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM