Monday 25 July 2022

Sit back and enjoy: London Early Opera's engagingly virtuosic performance of Handel's pasticcio, Caio Fabbricio

Handel, after Hasse: Caio Fabbricio - Fleur Barron, Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvi, Miriam Allen, Hannah Poulsom, Morgan Pearse, Helen Charlston, Jess Dandy, London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham; SIGNUM CLASSICS

Handel, after Hasse: Caio Fabbricio - Fleur Barron, Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, Miriam Allan, Hannah Poulsom, Morgan Pearse, Helen Charlston, Jess Dandy, London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham; SIGNUM CLASSICS

Handel's late pasticcio showcasing the music of Hasse and the younger generation; perhaps weak on drama but featuring some stunning, stylish singing

Having heard it in concert [see my review], and now listened to it on disc, you feel that Handel's pasticcio Caio Fabbricio makes ideal home listening, you can enjoy the music and not have to worry about the more awkward corners in the drama. And there is some spectacular music. Handel created the pasticcio in 1733 to showcase the music of his younger contemporary, Hasse, using a songbook and libretto from Hasse's opera Caio Fabbricio to create a new opera, with Hasse's arias, Handel's new recitatives and orchestration. Except that having a line-up of singers available that differed significantly in voice types from those in the premiere of Hasse's opera in Rome in 1732, the resulting work uses 13 of Hasse's 21 arias along with arias by other composers. What all the composers have in common is that they were from the younger generation of Italian composers of the Neapolitan school, writing arias that were melodic and often simpler than Handel's large-scale structures. This was music the audience could come out humming.

Bridget Cunningham and London Early Opera's premiere recording of Handel's Caio Fabbricio is now out on Signum Classics, with Fleur Barron, Miriam Allan, Morgan Pearse, Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, Helen Charlston, Hannah Poulsom and Jess Dandy.

It has to be said that the compression of the plot, and the adjustments for voice type, mean that the drama does not always make complete dramaturgical logic. Handel allocates his higher voices to the women and to the lovers in the opera, the title character (who is a general and a father) was originally played by his reliable but less than virtuoso bass, Gustavus Waltz, who only got one aria. The plot is supposed to be about the contrast between Fabbricio's nobility of purpose and Pirro's selfish, quixotic nature, but in fact really becomes a fight between three men (Pirro, Turio, Volusio) about two women (Sestia and Bircenna). That Volusio was played by one of Handel's castratos leads to a significant role in the drama for him, when he is actually rather inessential to the plot. In effect, the librettist needs to constantly make Volusio pop up in unexpected moments, but he gets some terrific music.

So, we must sit back and enjoy the music. 

Fleur Barron plays the capricious tyrant Pirro. She has a nice way of making her recitative rather trenchant, whilst in the arias she moves from swagger in the opening aria to athletic bravura in Act Two, and it is Pirro who gets the opera's final aria (followed just by a coro), with Harvey displaying a nice combination of strong, rich tone and bravura pizzaz.

As Volusio, Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie gets some of the opera's most bravura arias, all four of them demonstrate Gorbachyova-Ogilvie talents at combining busy figuration with style and drama. These are real virtuoso numbers and Gorbachyova-Ogilvie made vibrant work of them. 

As Sestia, Miriam Allan starts off busily stylish with lots elan, then she closes Act One with a large-scale aria that is both gently expressive and busily elaborate in a way that Hasse had made his own. Her Act Two aria is similarly stylish and busy, whilst her in final aria she managed to be vividly characterful whilst cutting some terrific passagework. 

Whilst Pirro has fallen in love with Sestia, his betrothed is actually Bircenna, though she gets fewer arias. Hannah Poulsom had a fine way with the lyrical, and melodic yet elaborate music of her arias. poised in Act One and here perhaps the closest she gets to being angry. She is gentle and stylish in Act Two, and in a similar spirit in Act Three. The role was written for Margherita Durastanti who had first sung with Handel back on Italy in 1707, and you get the impression he was writing to her strengths and she never gets the vivid revenge aria that you feel she needs.

The third man, Turio, is Helen Charlston. Charlston brings great style to Turio's two arias, and a relish for the text. In his one aria, Morgan Pearse manages to bring great character and dignity. The final role is Cinea,  not a big role but important enough for an aria. Jess Dandy impresses with her control of the virtuoso elements as well as her wonderfully rich contralto lower register.

This was music written for some of the finest singers of the day, and music designed to show off their voices at the utmost. The singers on this disc impress equally, and whilst the drama leaves something to be desired, the music is always vivid and engaging. In the 'pit' Bridget Cunningham and her band accompany with sympathy, swagger and, where necessary, virtuosity. Of course, this music isn't really about the band, but there is still plenty of opportunity for them to show off. Cunningham uses a band that includes not only two trumpets and two horns, but four oboes and two bassoons alongside 15 strings, to create a finely rich effect at times.

Deciding to perform an opera like this means beginning with significant scholarship to create a modern edition of the score. Not only digitising the surviving conducting score that survives in Hamburg, but building on other research in order to recognise which aria is by whom. The Cd booklet provides full information, so if you want to you can compare and contrast. Alongside composers like Hasse, Vinci, Leo, and Albinoni, whose work is a known quantity, the disc also includes arias by Antonio Pollarolo, Francesco Corselli, and Giuseppe Sellito, undoubtedly some of these are 'suitcase arias' (arie di baule), singers' speciality arias that they liked to perform in operas wherever possible, their party-pieces if you wish.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), after Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) - Caio Fabbricio
Pirro - Fleur Barron
Caio Fabbricio - Morgan Pearse
Sestia - Miriam Allen
Volusio - Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie
Bircenna - Hannah Poulsom
Turio - Helen Charlston
Cinea - Jess Dandy
London Early Opera
Bridget Cunningham (director)
Recorded 1-5 September 2021, All Saints' Church, East Finchley

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