Thursday 9 October 2014

Alice Coote - Handel arias

Alice Coote - Handel Arias - The English Concert - Hyperion
Handel arias from Hercules, Ariodante, Alcina, Radamisto, Giulio Cesare; Alice Coote, the English Concert, Harry Bicket; Hyperion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 23 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Fine disc of Handel arias in highly distinctive performances

The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote has sung Handel roles for some considerable time and has continued to keep Handel in her repertoire whilst developing more romantic roles, in Mozart, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Mahler and Elgar. This new disc from Hyperion Records sees Coote joined by Harry Bicket and the English Concert for a selection of arias from Handel's Italian operas, Radamisto, Alcina, Giulios Cestare in Egitto and Ariodante as well as from the oratorio Hercules.

Coote has not recorded many of her Handel roles and this disc provides a welcome chance to hear her in a variety of repertoire. Coote recently sang the title role in Handel's Xerxes with English National Opera. As anyone who heard her can testify, Coote's voice has a richly upholstered feel to it with an approach to baroque music which sometimes recalls the singers of a previous generation more than her contemporaries. This disc captures her voice well, with its rich tone, sense of line and lovely, strong lower register. There is not too much sense of vibrato and a strong core to the voice, and this combines with a fine technique including a lovely trill.

Alice Coote, Credit: Ben Ealovega
Alice Coote, Credit: Ben Ealovega
The roles that she has chosen are all roles which lie in the mezzo-soprano register rather then the alto. She sings two roles premiered by the castrato Carestini (Ruggiero in Alcina and the title role in Ariodante) whose voice lay rather higher than that of Senesino, the alto castrato who created many roles for Handel including the title role from Giulio Cesare.  Whereas Sesto, the role from that opera which Coote includes in this disc, was originally taken by a low female soprano.

She opens with Zenobia's Quando mai, spietata sorte from Radamisto, Handel's highly serious opera seria written for the Royal Academy in 1720, and which ushered in one of Handel's great periods of opera writing. Zenobia's cavatina bemoaning the trials of fate (of which Zenobia has to bear a lot in the opera), sees Coote duetting with a very fine solo oboe. One feature of this cavatina, which reoccurs throughout the disc, is that Coote's speeds are generally on the relaxed to slow side. Anyone expecting brisk and bracing Handel will be disappointed, but slower does not mean richly self-indulgent, and in this opening piece Coote lightens her voice finely.

She follows with a trio of arias from Handel's 1735 opera, Alcina. This comes from Handel's second great period, when he was writing operas for his own, rather reduced company but still coming up with major works. Coote sings three of the hero Ruggiero's arias. Mi lusinga il dolce affetto is sung to a gentle tempo, with a lovely feeling for the phrasing. The highly expressive suppleness of Coote's voice is complemented by a nice depth of tone. Verdi prati is taken quite slowly with a highly sculpted feel to the vocal line, in great contrast to other performers who bring a more fluid lightness. In terms of Coote's voice this works well, but may not be what everyone wants. Finally in this group, the bravura Sta nell'Ircana which sees Coote providing some brilliant, even passagework at a stirring tempo, complemented by bravura horn playing.

She moves into English next for three of Dejanira's airs from Handel's 1743 oratorio Hercules. This is one of Handel's two oratorios (the other is Semele) based on Greek myth rather than a religious or Biblical subject. It is an intensely tragic work, based on Greek tragedy. There in myrtle shades reclined has a gentle, relaxed quality with just a continuo accompaniment. Cease, ruler of the day, to rise sees Coote thinning her voice to a thread, and bringing an intimate and painful quality to the air. Finally, Dejanira's mad scene Where shall I fly?  starts with a recitative which has a real concentrated intensity. Coote really spits out the words here and brings a vivid alternation between the furious passagework and the quieter, intense moment.

Coote returns to Italian opera with Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Handel's 1724 opera. She sings just one aria, not for the title role but Sesto's Con l'ali di costanza.  This is quite lightly sung, but with an admirably firm line. and for the da capo she thins her voice out in a manner which is almost romantic in style.

Finally, there are three Ariodante's from the heroic opera written in 1735. Con l'ali di costanza starts with a lovely bouncy introduction followed by some finely busy passagework from Coote, which becomes even busier on the da capo. Scherza infida is very finely done, but at a very slow tempo. This works out of context, but I am not sure that I would want to hear it this way in the complete opera. Scherza infida is one of the lovely arias where Handel lets the bassoon loose from the bass line, but performance here is a little too discreet for my taste. Finally, the bravura Doppo notte which is performed with a lovely swing to it. She makes the underlying rhythm nicely catchy, and she and the performers are clearly enjoying themselves.

Generally Coote's ornamentation on the da capo's is intelligent and not over the top. She does not use the da capo to push the compass of the vocal line to much and favours filling in and extra passing notes in the melody line, to very expressive effect.

Throughout Coote is well supported by Harry Bicket and The English Concert, whose players contribute some lovely solo playing, with the ritornelli all given highly characterful performances.

Coote's style in Handel may not be to everyone's taste and some of her speeds are very relaxed, but she brings a lovely serious quality to the arias, a really rich depth of tone and a strong technique. This is very fine Handel singing which, to a certain extent, transcends the stylistic fashions.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Quando mai, spietata sorte (Radamisto HWV12a) [3'08]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Mi lusinga il dolce affetto (Alcina HWV34) [7'45]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Verdi prati (Alcina HWV34) [4'50]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Stà nell'Ircana (Alcina HWV34) [6'00]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - There in myrtle shades reclined (Hercules HWV60) [3'55]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Cease, ruler of the day, to rise (Hercules HWV60) [5'35]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Where shall I fly? (Hercules HWV60) [6'45]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Cara speme, questo core (Giulio Cesare in Egitto HWV17) [5'55]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Con l'ali di costanza (Ariodante HWV33) [5'42]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Scherza infida! (Ariodante HWV33) [11'41]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Dopo notte (Ariodante HWV33) [7'15]
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
The English Concert
Harry Bicket (conductor)
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