Wednesday, 10 July 2019

A real delight: Handel's Rival queen's brought to life

Handels Queens - Signum Classics
Handel's Queens: Cuzzoni & Faustina; Lucy Crowe, Mary Bevan, London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham; Signum Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 June 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A musical portrait of Handel's two 'rival queens' broadening our musical picture of them

The sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778) and Faustina Bordone (1697-1781), popularly known as Faustina, have had a somewhat bad press in the UK. There is no denying their individual talent, but the stories tend to be of their diva-ish behaviour and the notorious fight between them.

The new two-disc set from Bridget Cunningham and London Early Opera, Handel's Queens: Cuzzoni and Faustina from Signum Classics aims to set the record straight. With Lucy Crowe singing arias for Cuzzoni and Mary Bevan singing arias for Faustina, the programme encompasses not just the arias Handel wrote for them when they were in London (Cuzzoni from 1723 to 1728, Faustina from 1726 to 1728) but arias from throughout their careers from Carlo Pollarolo, Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicola Porpora, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, Antonio Vivaldi, Pietro Torri, Leonardo Leo, Giovanni Bononcini, Leonardo Vinci, Attilio Ariosti and Maurice Greene.

The advantage of the disc is the way it has cast its net widely. The two sopranos stay in London co-incided with Handel's prime and an entire disc could be assembled of his music for them, but this is a more balanced picture. We get Bononcini's Astianatte and Ariosti's Caria Marzio Coriolano written for London's Royal Academy of Music by composers who were Handel's peers and rivals, a valuable corrective to the fact that we often concentrate on Handel's influence at the Academy at this period. We hear an aria by Leonardo Vinci in Handel's version from his pasticcio L'Elpidia, pasticcio being an important way of filling the schedule and also providing an outlet for music by the younger composers from Italy. The disc ends with an aria da camera by Maurice Greene which has been identified as Faustina's farewell to London.



The disc opens with a bang. Following the rather appealing sinfonia from Ariodante by Carlo Pollarolo written for Venice, Lucy Crowe (Cuzzoni) sings Cleopatra's aria 'Da tempeste' from Handel's Giulio Cesare showing off an impressive technique combined with real personality and depth of tone. Then Mary Bevan (Faustina) sings Dalisa's aria 'Se fosse il mio diletto' by Johann Adolph Hasse written in 1730, the year the two were to marry and become one of Europe's musical 'power couples'. This is a large-scale piece (over eight minutes long) with plenty of scope for Bevan to be highly expressive. Crowe then sings what became Cuzzoni's signature tune, 'Falsa immagine' from Handel's Ottone, written for her in 1723 and which she was reluctant to sing at first. It is a beautifully inimate piece, almost tender at times, with just continuo accompaniment. Bevan follows this with Cleofide's aria 'Son prigioniera' from Poro written for her by Nicola Porpora in Turin 1731. In this we hear the galant influences which crop up in a lot of the non-Handel music on the disc. Whilst the aria is melodic, it is certainly not short on notes and Bevan sings with beautifully modulated tone.

The discs continue in similar form, moving between eras and composers and allowing us to hear many facets of both sopranos. They had worked together in Italy before coming to London (it was standard practice to have two leading sopranos), and their 'Rivalry' was very much a press invention, though it did whip up the audiences into rival factions. But the need to write two balanced soprano parts seems to have inhibited Handel somewhat and so the operas written during the 'Rival Queens' period such as Alessandro (and the engaging duet from this opera concludes disc one) never quite reach those from the earlier 1720s such as Giulio Cesare (which starred Cuzzoni as the lone soprano).

We also get a complete sequence from Bononcini's Astianatte written for London in 1727 and starring both Faustina and Cuzzoni. And here we can the approachability of Bononcini's music which made him such a success. But it was this opera which was interrupted by 'The Great Disturbance' caused by rival groups in the audience supporting different singers!

It is fascinating to come across not only arias but entire composers that you have never heard before. Carlo Pollarolo was a new name to me, and I very much enjoyed the aria 'Serba le belle lagrime' from his opera Alessandro, written for Venice in 1718, sung with great lyricism by Lucy Crowe. And Mary Bevan is on great form in the perky aria 'Se a ammollire il crudo amante' written for Faustina in 1724 by Pietro Torri from his Amadis di Grecia which premiered in Munich.

Cuzzoni was mainly praised for her 'pathetic' style of singing with Faustina specialising in the more modern busy, instrumental style of vocal writing, but in fact both sang in a wide variety of styles, the first doing extreme coloratura and the latter doing slower, expressive numbers. On the disc neither singer attempts to impersonate the older singer (that would probably be near impossible) but both bring distinct and appealing personalities to the music . Crowe takes advantage of Cuzzoni's reputation to give us some truly spectacular ornaments in the Da Capo passages whereas Bevan, singing music written for Faustina's slightly lower compass, tends to favour interpolating extra notes within the vocal line to stunning effect.

Throughout, Bridget Cunningham and London Early Opera Company accompany with engaging style. Cunningham provided the booklet notes which means that they are lively, extensive and learned. A lovely read.

This is a lovely set, on the one hand it reads as a musical biography of the two singers, but on the other it works well simply as a recital. With performances as engaging and as technically impressive as those on the disc, this is a real delight.

Handel's Queens: Cuzzoni & Faustina
Arias from Pollarolo's Ariodante, Handel's Giulio Cesare, Hasse's Dalisa, Handel's Ottone, Porpora's Poro, Orlandini's Nerone, Handel's Alessandro, Vivaldi's Scanderberg, Handel's Scipione, Torri's Amadis di Gaula, Handel's Admeto, Leo's Il Ciro Riconosciuto, Handel's Riccardo Primo, Bononcini's Astianatte, Handel's L'Elpidia (arranging Leonardo Vinci), Ariosti's Caio Marzio Coriolano and Maurice Greene's cantata La Liberta
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Mary Bevan (soprano)
London Early Opera
Bridget Cunningham (harpsichord/conductor)
Recorded in St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, 3-6 September 2018, 4-5 February 2019
SIGNUM CLASSICS 2CDs [63.59, 63.57]

Available from Amazon.

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