Sunday 16 November 2014

Faramondo from Göttingen

Faramondo - Accent
Handel Faramondo; Fons, Devin,Starushkeviych, Lowrey, Engletjes, Sparbo, Göttingen Festival Orchestra, Laurence Cummings; Accent
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 3 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Finely dramatic account of one of Handel's most under-rated operas

Handel's Faramondo has done badly on disc now this new recording on Accent from the Göttingen International Handel Festival 2014 remedies that. Laurence Cummings conducts the FestspielOrchester Göttingen with Emily Fons, Anna Devin, Anna Starushkevych, Njal Sparbo, Maarten Engeltjes, Christopher Lowrey, Edward Grint and Iryna Dziashko.

Handel's opera Faramondo has had a very bad press and Winton Dean witheringly described the plot as a whirlpool of inconsequence in his masterly survey of all Handel's operas. It had to wait until 2009 for its first decent recording (with Max Emanual Cencic and Philippe Jaroussky) and now here comes another recording on Accent made live at the 2014 Göttingen Festival with Emily Fons as Faramondo, Anna Devin as Clotilde, Anna Starushkevych as Rosimonda, Njal Sparbo as Gustavo, Maarten Engeltjes as Adolfo, Christopher Lowrey as Gernando, Edward Grint as Teobaldo and Iryna Dziashko as Childerico.

Premiered in 1737, it was Handel's first opera written in his collaboration with the rival Opera of the Nobility. The previous season had seen both companies struggle and Handel had had a stroke and been for a cure, so 1737/8 saw them combine forces. Handel wrote Faramondo for a strong cast, with the castrato Cafarelli in the title role. Regarded as one of the finest castrati, Cafarelli had a single season in London and never seems to have hit form there. The opera managed a total of eight performances before disappearing.

Emily Fons in Faramondo. Photo: Theodora da Silva/Int. Händel Festspiele Göttingen
Emily Fons in Faramondo.
Photo: Alciro Theodora da Silva
Handel probably did not choose the libretto, it is a reversion to the grand serious opera with no magic and no lighter elements, vastly different to his recent success with Alcina. The problems arise because the libretto was trimmed twice. Handel based his setting on a libretto for Gasparini, but this had removed the first six scenes from the original, and then Handel trimmed the recitative to the bone. Hence Winton Dean's acid comments about it, though he probably never saw a decent stage production. One problem for modern directors is that there are four leading male roles, three of which are high voices - one contralto, one mezzo-soprano, one soprano and Handel used two women and a mezzo-soprano castrato. Add to this that one of the heroines is a mezzo-soprano, so has a lower voice than the hero, and you have the sort of cross range/gender casting with sends any sense of modern realism out the window.

The article in the CD booklet for this new set asks us to listen to the opera differently. The aristocratic patrons were not interested in plot, as such, but in situation. The heroic opera seria genre at its most serious was to involve aristocratic characters tested in realistic situations, enabling them to show moral superiority at its best. Realism meant essentially no magic, but many of the devices used rather test this (Faramondo includes an outbreak of 'Trovatore swapped baby syndrome'). Narrative logic and character development are not essential and we must try to listen with different ears. And Handel's opera was based on Gasparini's, heavily so. In fact, Dr Thomas Irvine in his article asks us to re-evaluate Handel's contribution in this light, how important was the composer to the original audience?

Faramondo. Photo: Theodora da Silva/Int. Händel Festspiele Göttingen
Photo: Alciro Theodora da Silva/Int. Händel Festspiele Göttingen
For this new set we have a live recording from the Göttingen festival, and it is clear from the pictures in the CD book and the performance itself that it was a highly dramatic, modern dress affair. But the singers have grasped the drama in their roles and whatever the shortcomings of the libretto, give us a performance which is vividly involving and extremely well sung. All the cast respond to Handel's music with technical skill and virtuosity, a testament to the quality of Handel singing in young singers today. But they manage to combine this with a strong feel for the drama, and it is clear that the recitatives are delivered with brilliant conviction and impulse.

The plot is basic in the extreme. In the middle of a war, in which the armies of kings Faramondo (Emily Fons) and Gernando (Christopher Lowrey) are allied against those of Gustavo (Njal Sparbo) and his son Adolfo (Maarten Engeltjes). Each pair of men are rivals for the love of a woman in the opposing camp: Faramondo and Gernando with Gustavo's daughter Rosimonda, Gustavo and Adolfo with Faramondo's sister Clotilde. The complication involves the general Teobaldo (Edward Grint) exchanging his own son for Gustavo's son. Faramondo later kills this imposter (thinking it is the real son) and the resulting lust for revenge fuels the plot until the closing pages when the switch is revealed.

The music is stronger than Winton Dean gives credit and, whilst the libretto is over-reliant on simile arias, the overall level of invention is pretty high and, as sung here, surprisingly consistent.

Emily Fons makes a dramatic and bravura Faramondo. She has a vibrant voice with quite a vibrato but combines this with technical prowess so that her Faramondo ranges from expressive poise to powerfully serious bravura dramatics. True, her passagework is sometimes smudged, but it is always vibrant. No-one else gets as many arias as Faramondo, this was very much a vehicle for Cafarelli.

Christopher Lowrey displays an attractive warm-toned soft-grained counter-tenor as Gernando, with a facility for amazingly fast and enlivening passagework. His is a highly sympathetic character, with a nicely mellifluous tone.  The rival camp get rather fewer arias, but Njal Sparbo makes a vividly vicious Gustavo though I did worry about the way he disturbed the vocal line. And Maarten Engeltjes displays a wonderful high counter-tenor as Adolfo (a role actually written for a female soprano). It is quite  small voice, but very sweet and with some style. His duet with Anna Devin's Clotilde in act three is rather moving, with two vibrant voices combining to make something fragile.

Devin is the ever-perfect Clotilde, and Devin sings with richly characterful voice, with a vibrato round a strong core but some very fluent passagework. Her act two aria is toe-tapping indeed, and Devin indulges in some virtuoso ornamentation. Anna Starushkevych's Rosimonda is fluently characterful and stylish. She sings with a bright-toned, focussed and well modulated voice. She and Fons blend beautifully in their duet which closes act two.

Edward Grint rather gets the short straw as Teobaldo, but he acquits himself with some brilliance. Whilst Iryna Dziashko's Childerico sings only in the recitatives and coro.

Laurence Cummings conducts with style and brio. The orchestra gives a crisply involving account of the overture and the whole opera has an enlivening vividness which shows live recording at its best.

The CD booklet comes with lots of pictures of the original production, and complete libretto and translation, plus the article to which I have referred. The CD sound is brilliant and full of detail, though of course it also includes stage noise but that only adds to the dramatic versimilitude.

You might prefer a recording which uses male counter-tenors in all the male roles (helpful when some of the female characters sing with lower voices than some of the male ones) in which case look at the 2009 recording conducted by Diego Fasolis on Virgin Classics. But I rather like the mixing of things, the casting of this recording is far truer to Handel's ethos of mixing castratos with travesty roles, and Cummings directs such a superbly vivid recording that once you start listening you will be gripped. I certainly was.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Faramondo (1737) [176.00]
Faramondo - Emily Fons (mezzo-soprano)
Clotlde - Anna Devin (soprano)
Rosimonda - Anna Starushkevych (mezzo-soprano)
Gustavo - Njal Sparbo (bass)
Adolfo - Maarten Engeltjes (counter-tenor)
Gernando - Christopher Lowrey (counter-tenor)
Teobaldo - Edward Grint (baritone)
Childerico - Iryna Dziashko (soprano
FestpielOrchester Gottingen
Laurence Cummings (direction)
Recorded live at the Gottingen International Handel Festival, 2 June 2014.
ACCENT ACC26402 3CD's [66.44, 51.40, 57.13]

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