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.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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