Tuesday 29 March 2016

Handel's Imeneo in its Dublin incarnation

Handel - Imeneo
Handel Imeneo (Dublin version); Ann Hallenberg, Monica Piccinini, Magnus Staveland, Fabrizio Beggi, Cristiana Arcari, Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi; Glossa
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 17 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Handel's Dublin version of his penultimate opera makes a rare appearance on disc

Handel's Imeneo is something of a curiosity in more ways than one. Not only is it Handel's penultimate opera, and rather lighter in subject matter but the heroine ends up paired off not with the alto voiced hero but with the bass voiced anti-hero. And it was the only one of his operas that Handel performed outside London. Even though the work had not done well when premiered in London in 1740, he gave performances in Dublin as part of his visit there in 1742 (when Messiah was premiered). The version used in Dublin had significant revisions, and was performed as a serenata Hymen. It is this version which has been recorded by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante on the Glossa label. Monica Piccinini is Rosmene and Ann Hallenberg is Tirinto, with Magnus Staveland as Imeneo, Fabrizio Beggi as Argenio and Cristiana Arcari as Clomiri.

The plot is relatively simple, Rosmene and her friend Clomiri have been abducted by pirates, and Rosmene's beloved, Tirinto, laments their loss. But they have in fact been saved by Imeneo, who claims the hand of Rosmene in reward, though in fact Clomiri has fallen in love with him. Clomiri's father Argenio informs Rosmene that the senate has come down in Imeneo's favour, duty above love. Rosemene eventually feigns madness in order to choose and chooses Imeneo.

The curiosity of the plot is that Imeneo is a minor character and it is Tirinto (originally played by an alto castrato) who has the lions share of the arias including the honours of the final duet with Rosmene. The opera seems to have had something of a long gestation period with Handel putting it to one side, this was a period when disillusion with opera in London had rather set in and he was also having difficulty putting together casts. The remarkable thing is that, despite all the problems, the result is a delightful work. Handel writes with a lightness here, bringing forward some of the galant style which was becoming popular.

For the Dublin performances, Imeneo went from bass to tenor, the role of Tirinto was transposed down a little for contralto Susanna Cibber and the role of Clomiri virtually disappeared. Acts One and Three end in new duets rather than the arias originally written for them, and Handel also trimmed some of the recitative, perhaps aware that what little plot there was, is stretched thin. The final part of Act Three is a remarkable sequence of short ariosos, recitatives and duets giving it a dynamic and vivid quality as the three main characters, Rosmene, Tirinto and Imeneo attempt to come to resolution.

Ann Hallenberg in the role of Tirinto gives an object lesson in quality Handel singing, Always beautifully modulated in tone, and finely expressive, she goes far beyond simply singing the notes and makes the music really expressive without ever compromising on the technical details.

Monica Piccinini is bright and charming as Rosmene, her soubrette-ish voice articulating the passagework finely. But after a couple of arias, I found the lack of light and shade in her performance a little worrying and tendency to hardness sometimes crept into her upper register. But in her duets and trios with Ann Hallenberg, Piccinini's performance seemed to rise to match that of Hallenberg's, and the final mad scene sequence also brings out a strength of expression thus making the end of the opera well worth listening to.

Magnus Staveland makes a robust Imeneo. Appealing in character,but with a some unevenness in the faster passages, though his Act Two aria has a brilliant vividness to it also. Fabrizio Beggi is a similarly robust Argenio with a bluff way with his arias. Cristiana Arcari sings creditably in what little of the role of Clomiri is left to her. Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante perform with grace and delight, bringing out the lightness and charm of Handel's score.

It seems a shame that a way could not have been found to record both versions of Handel's score. Handel's revisions to his operas are rarely improvements, generally they were made according to the exigencies of the casting. There is much of interest in the Dublin version of Imeneo, but the full version is of interest too.

This is very much Ann Hallenberg's disc, it is she who gives a masterclass in poised expressive Handel singing, and whilst the remaining cast do not always quite match her they are never less than creditable. Handelians will find the disc completely fascinating.

Update: It has been pointed out to me that Handel's original version of Imeneo is available on cpo, also with Ann Hallenberg as Tirinto and Andreas Spering conducting Capella Augustina.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1756) - Imeneo (Dublin version, Serenata 'Hymen')(1740/42) [114.51]
Imeneo - Magnus Staveland (tenor)
Tirinto - Anna Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Rosmene - Monica Piccinini (soprano)
Argenio - Fabrizio Beggi (bass)
Clomiri - Cristiana Arcari (soprano)
Recorded in Halle, June 2015
GLOSSA GCD923405 2CD's [44.31, 70.20]
Available from Amazon.co.uk

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