Marie Nicole Lemieux (Polinesso), Topi Lehtipuu (Lurcanio), Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Odoardo), Matthew Brook (King of Scotland), Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis.
Virgin Classics 0708442 3 (3 CDs)
Ariodante (1735) is one of the richest musically and most involving dramatically of all of Handel’s operas. One of several adaptations
of various parts of Ariosto’s
Orlando furioso the composer created for London, it followed by roughly a decade the masterpieces Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda, receiving its premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden just ahead of the first performance there of Alcina, another inspired stage work drawn from the same literary source.
Ariodante has done rather well for itself on disc, beginning with the appearance of Raymond Leppard’s 1978 recording on Philips, featuring the beloved Dame Janet Baker in the title role, although that worthy set has since been superseded in almost every other way by the more stylish period-instrument performances directed by Marc Minkowski (Archiv Produktion) and Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi). Now, along comes an even finer recording to challenge their supremacy.
One is swept into the action almost immediately. Following a crisply spirited Overture we meet the central betrothed pair, the vassal
prince Ariodante and the Scottish princess Ginevra. The latter is introduced by a charmingly carefree arioso that soprano Karina Gauvin delivers with exquisite purity of timbre, typical of her sensuous and very musical singing throughout, notably in the great tragic scene that ends Act 2, and also Ginevra’s poignant D minor farewell to her father in Act 3. Soon Ariodante appears, in one of Handel’s most spectacular introductory arias, ‘Con l’ali di costanza.’ Here Joyce DiDonato confirms her status as today’s reigning Handelian mezzo-soprano. She braves the fearsome coloratura rigors (including bold 16th-note runs that prompted Handel’s contemporary, Charles Burney, to complain that Act 1 is nothing but “wings and flying”) with shining technical and musical aplomb.
Much the same could be said for her other tour de force, Ariodante’s noble, climactic aria of triumph, ‘Dopo note atra e fenesto,’ in Act 3; here DiDonato’s tone is firm and full, her rhythm precise, her runs secure, her ornamentation clean, even and expressive. If ‘Scherza infida’ (sung as the prince contemplates the apparent infidelity of his intended) isn’t quite as heart-rending as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s on the McGegan set, DiDonato summons ravishing vocal colorations to limn the hero’s bitter, disconsolate state in this, one of Handel’s greatest expressions of grief. It is here that DiDonato proves her superiority in the role to Minkowski’s primo uomo, Anne Sofie von Otter, a conscientious and intelligent singer who, try as she might, does not inhabit Handel’s world as comfortably as DiDonato. I have heard nothing better from the American mezzo on recordings.
As for the rest, Marie Nicole Lemieux illuminates the dark villainy of Polinesso with a voice as convincingly deployed as Ewa Podles’s on the Minkowski set, though her singing is far better focused, from a guttural low register all the way up to an impressive top. Sabina Puértolas makes a charming Dalinda, light and spirited, conveying gentle pathos in her siciliana early in Act 2, even if her ‘Il primo ardor’ betrays a touch of edginess on top. Topi Lehtipuu and Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani are both very fine in the tenor roles. Bass Matthew Brook makes the Scottish king, Ginevra’s father, a sympathetic presence.
Those listeners who found Minkowski’s conducting far too driven will welcome the greater elasticity of phrasing and judiciousness of pacing Curtis brings to his reading of Handel’s miraculous score. Here, in Curtis’s second recording of Ariodante (an undistinguished live performance from the 2007 Spoleto Festival is available on DVD on Dynamic), the veteran baroque scholar, harpsichordist, fortepianist and conductor adds another important entry to his discography of Handel operas for Virgin Classics. The quality of articulation, phrasing and instrumental detail he elicits from his 27-member period band and 10-voice (including six of the seven soloists) chorus ties the bow on this outstandingly successful set. The recording engineers provide a clean, vivid sound-picture.
Those who adore Handel operas will find much to adore here.