Handel Bangers #6 Empio, dirò tu sei

Act I Giulio Cesare in Egitto

By Jennifer Larmore

Well, this is the big one, isn’t it? Julius Caesar in Egypt, but universally referred to as Cesare by we Baroque and rollers, is Handel’s most popular opera, then and now. It’s generally considered to be his greatest, too. It’s also his longest at around four hours. But trust me; the time will fly because you’ll be having fun. A truckload of it, in fact.

Our boy brought both his commercial and artistic A games and the result is breath-taking. The principals have an incredible eight, count ‘em, arias each. The Chrysander Edition lists twenty-nine arias in total, plus arioso numbers, and every single one is an absolute barnstorming banger. The orchestration meets new heights, too. Handel assembled his biggest ever orchestra (by the standards of Baroque norms, of course) and the resulting tuttis are suitably massive. Listen out for the hunting horns and trumpet obligato, newbies. To die for.

You’ll rarely find a tenor on any of the recordings but that’s about the only voice not represented. Here, too, Handel went for broke with his largest cast, featuring sopranos, mezzos, countertenors, a bass or baritone and enhanced chorus.

And so to the aria. It’s Cesare’s second Act I turn and It’s full of drama and menace, most effectively expressed by the continuo group (more like a continuo battalion actually) thundering away under the upper strings. It sounds like C minor (but I haven’t checked so don’t hold me to it) which is a great key; full of dread and impending doom.

There have been a lot of great singers tackling the role over the years, some sopranos too, although Cesare is generally a mezzo’s role (yay!) and even the occasional countertenor.

Today, I’ve picked Jennifer Larmore from Rene Jacobs’s award-winning recording. She’s a natural mezzo but in recent years has tackled some dramatic soprano roles. From America, the deep south as well, she joins her compatriot the late, truly great, Alan Curtis, in destroying my once firmly held contention that the Yanks are uncouth barbarians who shouldn’t be allowed to perform Barqoue opera. For me, Larmore’s greatest strength is as a vocal dramatist. She’s a really great musical actress and commits to character always and entirely. As you will hear.

The recording is typical of Jacobs’s maverick approach. There are a lot of additions and tinkering with the score. As always with him, based on very dubious claims to authenticity and Handel’s intentions. And, again as always, he just can’t help himself; writing in his own continuo lines. Nevertheless, it’s a cracking Cesare, as you would expect from the man who has, arguably, the best feel for drama amongst his Baroque contemporaries. It sounds enjoyably bloody huge, as well. Don’t be selfish and keep the good times to yourself; crank it up and treat your neighbours. You really need this recording.

Obviously, you always need Alan Curtis, and his 2011 recording with Marie-Nicole Lemieux is typically scrupulous in presenting, as near as is humanly possible, exactly what Handel wrote. I do like Lemieux very much but I must reluctantly accept she sounds just too beautiful and perfect for this particular aria. The recording as a whole, however, is wonderful. You also get the brilliant Romina Basso as Cornelia and Karina Gauvin as Cleopatra. Phew! Some trio, eh?

Basso also appears on George Petrou’s recording as Tolomeo and she is unnervingly psychotic. Normally the role is a countertenor and instead of the camp, petulant brat so many descend to, Basso loads up the slithering, amoral depravity and is sensational. So yeah; you need this one too.

Just one final mention, from the crowded field; Glyndebourne’s production starring Sarah Connolly as Cesare and an absolutely knock-out Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra in her Glyndebourne debut, is available on DVD. You really need this as well. No, seriously. Start to finish, it’s the best Cesare you can get on DVD. Ignore the haters, of which there are some. If one wishes to be snide, you could call it Carry on Giulio or Cesare in Bollywood – it’s David McVicar innit? – but I do not lie; you will be thanking me on bended knees if you shell out for it. Go for it; decent opera collections sadly do not themselves build.


Handel Bangers #5 Brilla nell’alma un non inteso ancor

Act III Alessandro

By Sophie Boulin

Happy Hump Day, Handel Homies!

To celebrate the long weekend, now tantalisingly visible, here’s a real gem from the veritable treasure chest that comprises Handel’s operas.

Alessandro was Handel’s twenty-first opera, the half-way point of his operatic output before he ditched the form altogether for the much more lucrative pastures of the new craze, oratorio. The libretto by Paolo Rolli is based on Ortensio Mauro’s epic tale, La superbia d’Alessandro. It was an instant success with all thirteen of the 1726 performances sold out. It had two revivals, 1727 & 1732, which also proved very lucrative for the composer.

Unusually for our boy, Handel decided to take the piss; Alexander the Great isn’t quite sent up but he is certainly portrayed less than flatteringly – a bit of a blustering egotistical blunderer – and the lightness and swiftness of both the music and drama, lends itself very well to a comic interpretation, should the director view the work in this vein.

This is Rossane’s central Act III aria, cast for soprano, and it’s full of vim and fizz. Light, sparkling and swift. Typically, with lengthy rapid passagework, breath control is an added challenge for the singer. Here we have French Baroque specialist, Sophie Boulin, turning in a faultless and hugely enjoyable performance. Superb technique meets wit and charm and who could ask for more? The very best Baroque singers understand that clarity, purity and precision are essential in this repertoire and, perhaps more than in any other style of opera, the natural timbre and personal sound of the singer is much more apparent. Exposed, as they are, and undisguised by fat wide vibrato etc.

Tragically, Mz Boulin died in 2020 at just age sixty-nine. Much admired and respected by her peers, she took her art very seriously. Even specialising in Baroque body language as a dancer to add richness and authenticity to her work.

This performance is from the 1985 recording headed up by Sijiswald Kuijken and his La Petite Band on Harmonia Mundi. Kuijken did decent Handel work in the 80s and often cast singers just before they went on to bigger and better things so I’d strongly recommend this recording. I notice it is still available separately at a steal on Amazon so you don’t need to try and find the box set from which my own copy comes. There’s only George Petrou’s recording on Decca currently in print if you want an alternative. I haven’t heard it myself but it features Karina Gauvin so I’ll definitely pick it up at some point.


Handel Bangers #4 Consolati, o bella

Act I Orlando

By Rosa Manion, Rosemary Joshua, Hilary Summers

Today’s Banger is a little unusual. Traditionally, the closing aria of Act I was reserved for a big virtuoso set-piece by one of the star singers Handel had engaged. Here, the act closes with a trio. Quite a risky proposition, from a commercial point of view. Despite writing duets, trios and the occasional quartet, of the same high quality as his solo arias, Handel was taking a chance here; these were not at all popular with the audiences of the day. Blending multiple voices in close harmony pretty much eliminated the space and freedom for the singers to engage in improvisatory fireworks, and that was exactly what the punters paid to see.

Orlando was one of three operas Handel wrote with the libretti based on the 1532 epic poem, Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto (the others being Alcina and Ariodante). Here, the trio characters are the shepherdess Dorinda, Angelica, Queen of Cathay, and Medoro, an African Prince and beloved of Angelica. What’s particularly beautiful are the ravishing textures produced by combing two very different sopranos and a contralto voice. Rosemary Joshua, very partial to a wide and intrusive vibrato, is forced to reign it in here, to maintain balance of ensemble, and is all the better for it. Cracking stuff.

Orlando has fared reasonably well in terms of recordings and the listener has choices which pretty much cover all tastes. This, with Patricia Bardon as Orlando, under William Christie and Les Arts Florrisants, and no countertenors anywhere 😃 is obviously my preference. But fans of males singers have two excellent, but very different, options. Firstly, there’s Bejun Mehta in the lead role under Rene Jacobs on Archiv. But if Jacobs’s notoriously interventionist way with Handel’s lines is not to your taste, then James Bowman (with Arlene Auger and Emma Kirkby, no less!) under the much more conservative Christopher Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music on Decca should tick all your boxes.


Handel Bangers #3 Al par dell amia sorte

Act I Arminio

By Vivica Genaux

Today’s Banger comes courtesy of American mezzo, Vivica Genaux. Genaux is an interesting study in this repertoire for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this was her first Baroque opera but she isn’t a Baroque specialist. Instead, she is a very versatile singer who sounds at home in whatever repertoire she chooses to sing. Her repertoire currently consists of around thirty roles (mainly trouser roles. Par for the course for a mezzo, of course) which span much of the operatic canon. Impressive.

In this, her debut Handel opera, she takes the lead role of Arminio and distinguishes herself, despite possessing a skilful coloratura, by restraint, taste and sound judgment. She allows the beauty of Handel’s melody to blossom, while the chord changes really emphasise the tragic dignity of the aria. Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco are absolutely on-point and the tempi are perfect. Lovely stuff indeed.

Your choice of recording is easy, given there are only three. My preference, as always, is for Curtis wherever possible, who respects Handel’s practice of casting women when castrati are unavailable. Thankfully, they’re an extinct breed! The consensus is that the timbre and range of a modern mezzo, or contralto, is much closer to that of Baroque castrati than today’s male countertenors. If, however, your preference is for a countertenor, then Petrou’s 2016 recording with Max Emanuel Cenčić in the lead role is the obvious choice.


Handel Bangers #2 Vorrei vendicarmi del perfido cor

Act II Alcina

By Sonia Prina

This is simply astonishing. Firstly, the tempo; it’s breakneck. I’ve never heard this aria performed faster. Or indeed even anywhere near as fast. The technical demands on the singer, of dispatching those crazy semi-quaver runs, while maintaining perfect pitch and accuracy of timing, at this speed, are simply immense.

On a first listen, you wonder what the hell she’ll do on the da capo section; there’s no room, space or time to improvise & turn up the virtuosity even more, surely? Ha! Hold her Pironi, folks…

Sonia Prina is an authentic Italian contralto & certainly the best Baroque specialist in this range working anywhere in the world today. Her voice is very distinctive and instantly recognizable; all smokey, dark, & burnished mahogony, with a technique to die for. Articulation & attack is perfect. Those deliciously Italian rolled ‘R’s are a joy.

This is Bradamante’s big show-stopper in Alcina and no one has ever done it better. It’s from Alan Curtis’s reference recording of the opera, is stacked out with the best Baroque singers of the last fifty years & is the reference recording. Buy or die, pop pickers.


Handel Bangers #1 Voglio amare infin ch’io moro

Act II Partenope

By Krisztina Laki

Laki makes this recording the first choice for Partenope. Admittedly, it isn’t a crowded field. There are probably only two recordings still in the catalogue, with just another two or three older releases long since deleted.

This is glorious Handel singing. Laki (born 1944, Hungary) was not a big star, confining herself mainly to the stage in Germany but on the evidence here that’s a big loss to the recorded Handel discography. Check out that vibrato! – very narrow, very subtle, beautifully tasteful & perfect for Baroque opera. Her chief competition on disc features Rosemary Joshua who’s ill-disciplined warblings caused me physical pain after the dignity, elegance and restraint of Laki’s gorgeous singing.

She knows what to do with the da capo section, too; gorgeously ornamenting the written line, rather than rewriting it in an attempt to showcase her viruosity. As so many Handel hacks seem to do. This is a very classy singer who understands her material and puts it, not herself, front and centre.

The tessitura is quite low, for a coloratura soprano, but it spills effortlessly from Laki. Purity of tone, pitch-perfection, but with plenty of restrained power behind the notes, this is the most beautiful seven minutes you will experience today. You’re welcome.


Office Soundtrack: Idomeneo (Mozart)

This is a definite top 10 opera for me. Possibly even top 5. I’ve had a blast, this week, reacquainting myself with the six recordings I have of it. Generally accepted as Mozart’s first mature opera, it’s a fine example of opera seria. Despite our man acknowledging Gluck’s reforms – ballet is included and the shipwreck scene closing Act I at least nods to, if not blatantly steals from, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – all the classical Italian tropes are present and correct. Particularly in the secco and stromentato recitatives.

The libretto by Varseco is fashioned from an original text by Danchet, with a strong Mestastasion flavour. Thus both the drama and the music are a skilled amalgam of the French and Italian styles.

As all opera, indeed all music, lends itself to a variety of interpretations, there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ or ‘best’ reading. Most will have their charms. These three, however, are in my view the best three available and cover all the bases both the casual listener and discerning connoisseur might require.

Jon Eliot Gardiner’s authority in this repertoire is, of course, indisputable.  Here, as in everything he approaches, impeccable scholarship and flawless musical instincts combine to produce probably the most authentic Idomeneo ever committed to disc. This is, essentially, the performance given at its premiere but ‘Jegsy’ has included the material an affronted and irked Amadeus was forced to cut from the score so fill your boots, dear listener.

Aided and abetted by his usual sidekicks, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists (they deliver probably the best closing Act III ballet you’ll ever hear, by the way), Eliot Gardiner deploys stellar talent in the lead roles. Consummate pro that he is, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, stamps himself all over his titular role and, for my money, is a far better fit than the more mainstream bel canto tenors found in rival recordings.

But it’s the women who steal the show; Sophie von Otter’s Idamante is moving and never less than convincing; Sylvia McNair is liquid, pure and sumptuous while Hillevi Martinpelto is a mesmerizingly lacerating Elettra.

Charles Mackerras is no less an authoritative Mozartian than Jegsy, but of the old school. Albeit something of a period instrument/performance pioneer. That said, his score is complete, too, so makes for an interesting apples-to-apples comparison.

Bostridge, as Idomeneo, isn’t my first choice; a tad too smooth, shading dangerously close to blandness on occasions. Rolfe Johnson pops up here, as well, in the smaller Arbace role.  While Lieberson (Idamante), Milne (Ilia) and Frittoli (Elettra) are all perfectly acceptable-to-excellent, Eliot Gardiner’s singers deliver that little bit more.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are outstanding, despatching the orchestral score with panache and a relaxed insouciance that disguises their commitment to the maestro’s vision.

With this performance, huge on excitement, the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. While Jegsy delivers gravitas and gripping solemnity, Mackerras winkles out the subtle humour hidden deep in the text, particularly Act II, and provides an exhilarating and good-natured reading. It’s marvellous fun and if encountering Idomeneo for the first time this is the most accessible reading available.

And so to René Jacobs. Crank or visionary? To many the man is marmite but it’s difficult to see why. Yes, he’s certainly idiosyncratic but the firmness of his intellectual grasp means anything he delivers doesn’t need to look long for strong supporting arguments.

His series of Mozart operas for Harmonia Mundi include some of the finest Mozart recordings of the modern age. Here, he goes further than even Jegsy and Charlie and includes every note willingly dispatched by Mozart himself! A courageous decision, to be sure. His reading features the least distinguished cast of the three but there are ample compensations. He is the better dramatist of the three and the human tragedy of the characters shines through stronger than in any other reading. You’ll either like his trademark (comparatively) breakneck tempi or you’ll howl in anguish but, for my money, it’s always at the service of the whole and sounds entirely natural in the context he sets for himself and his musicians.

Other highlights? I like what some might find to be the intrusive continuo and there is probably the best Act III quartet ever recorded. It’s electrifying, frankly.

The sound, too, is first rate. Combining clarity, depth and richness, it’s what hi-fi was made for. There is a bonus DVD, too, where Jacobs explains his thinking and approach which is well worth your time.

Serious collectors absolutely need all three. I couldn’t possibly do without any of them but if you’re an Idomeneo virgin I’d advise the MacKerras recording as your starting point.


Office Soundtrack: The Hub of Hubbard

This is a simply ferocious session. The incendiary brace of Without a Song and the pedal-to-the-metal death-driver Just One of Those Things must surely comprise one of the most uncompromising openings to any hard-bop date ever recorded. One can only imagine what Cole Porter would have made of Hubbard’s scorching assault on his material.

Freddie was in Germany when he cut this session, straight off the back of intensive road-work and the resulting tightness of the quintet is a joy to hear.

From 1969 It’s fascinating, too, as he stands at the junction of the hard-bop he would soon leave behind and the electro-jazz funk he would embrace in barely a year’s time. The band barely pay lip service to the heads of each take before tearing them off and then reconstructing their charts in a white-hot blaze of unrestrained passion.

Freddie, himself, lays down at least three of the greatest solos he ever recorded and, frankly, they are worth the price alone. Add to that the self-penned Blues for Duane (Hubbard’s son), featuring a mellow and lyrical Daniels solo, and everything else is a bonus. That your buck is banged to beyond the max by Richard Davis on bass, Roland Hanna on keys and the too-little heard Louis Hayes on drums, means The Hub of Hubbard is both essential and, at under a tenner on CD, grand theft audio.

Go get it and thank me later.

Culture Music

The Magic Flute: Opera North

Nottingham Theatre Royal
There’s a school of thought that a decent Die Zauberflöte stands or falls on the strength (or lack thereof) of Papageno. Personally, I’ve always found the character capable of being immensely irritating and the mystifying preference of some to ham it up only intensifies my annoyance. Tonight’s culprit – Irish tenor, Gavin Ring – costumed as a bizarre combo of an extra from Mrs. Brown’s Boys and Vivien from The Young Ones, should’ve seen me bolting for the bar well before the end of Act 1. That I stayed was a testament to the overall excellence of one of the best Opera North productions I’ve ever seen. And, to be entirely fair, to Mr. Ring who, despite the shudderingly ridiculous costume, delivered a performance of warmth and charm.


The Magic Flute is one of only two operas, three at a push, that I can stand in English translation and while Schikeneder might have wept oceans at the liberties taken with his libretto, Opera North delivered a superb production.

The sets, FX and costumes held up well against anything on offer at Covent Garden this season and the pacing was perfect.

Musically, the company rarely fails to deliver, and this production was no exception. Many highlights but, for me, the Three Ladies were outstanding.

The poniards, hoodwinks, cabletows and regular steps (and a ‘Festive Board’ I kid you not!) provided nudge-nudge-wink-wink enjoyment for any Freemasons in the audience but the honours went to soprano Samantha Hays. Her Queen of The Night – unusually, all intense vulnerability and stricken pathos – was mesmerising and commanded the audience’s sympathy. Well, mine at least…


Office Soundtrack: Search For The New Land

Morgan’s commercial success with The Sidewinder means that this date, recorded before but released immediately afterwards, is too often overlooked.

Morgan is in expansive and relaxed form and perfectly in sync with a flawless rhythm section comprising Billy Higgins and Reggie Workman.

By now, the world knew he could tear it up plenty, when the mood took him. But here, he mostly eschews the incendiary feats of virtuosity and, instead, swings and swaggers with a lyrical gusto. Almost reminiscent of the great Harry James.

Where most musicians induce tension via harmonic means, Higgins and Workman ramp it up by stretching the rubato to snapping point. Most obviously on Mr. Kenyatta, arguably the stand-out cut against seriously stiff competition.

No filler, all killer and one of Morgan’s greatest sessions.