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Miss Mannered

Joyce DiDonato enjoys the rare cachet of having three studio-recorded operas released in the past three years while other famous divas must be content with “just” DVDs. Although two of Renée Fleming’s Violettas have found their way onto video in less than five years (why??), “the people’s diva” has only recorded one studio opera in the past decade—Strauss’s Daphne—released back in 2006.

Although she still makes solo studio CDs, Anna Netrebko has only done live opera recordings (Capuleti, Nozze, Traviata—not counting the Bohème soundtrack) since she stopped recording as a Mariinsky company member. Angela Gheorghiu may be the only other diva who continues to make studio recordings (Butterfly, Fedora) probably because she sings so few roles on stage.

Some believe it’s simply that no companies are doing these projects anymore; however, the truth is the death of studio opera recordings has been greatly exaggerated. Operas are still being recorded, but the problem (if it can indeed be called a problem) is that fewer and fewer come from the 19th and 20th century.

On the other hand operas written before 1800 are released regularly—two Cavalli operas appear soon, as do works by Campra, Gluck, Terradellas, etc. As a star who has consistently embraced baroque music, Joyce DiDonato then is in a unique position, recording Handel’s Alcina, Vivaldi’s Ercole sul Termodonte and, now, Handel’s Ariodante conducted by Alan Curtis and recently released on Virgin Classics.

I suspect that mezzo-sopranos worldwide venerate the Italian castrato Carestini, the first Ariodante. Since Carestini’s voice was higher than Handel’s other castrati, his roles are almost never sung by countertenors. So mezzos revel in having Ariodante and Ruggiero (Carestini’s role in Alcina) to themselves; recent Ariodantes have included Susan Graham, Alice Coote, Angelika Kirchschlager, Sarah Connolly, Vesselina Kasarova and Vivica Genaux.

However, as he recorded a CD of arias written for Carestini, Philippe Jaroussky may become the first power-countertenor to break this mezzo-lock! As the role is especially blessed with two of Handel’s greatest arias–the haunting “Scherza infida” with its keening bassoon obbligato and the dazzling coloratura showpiece “Dopo notte,” it’s no surprise that DiDonato (who sang the role in Geneva in 2007) would want to record it.

Premiered in 1735 at the original Covent Garden, Ariodante is one of three Handel works based on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: the others being Orlando from 1733 and Alcina which followed Ariodante by just three months. Lacking the elements of magic of the other Ariosto operas, Ariodante has enjoyed considerable popularity as much for its straightforward plot of love and loyalty threatened by ambition and sexual jealousy as for its splendid score.

It is also notable in Handel’s oeuvre for having more instrumental movements than any other opera (thirteen in all): dances which conclude each act created for the famous French dancer Marie Sallé, who was a prime attraction at Covent Garden during this time. It also features an unusually large number of duets (four), the most since Teseo written over twenty years before.

When I was a baby baroque-buff, the first time I heard Ariodante was when I bought an “in-house pirate” of the performance produced for the opening week of the Kennedy Center in 1971 starring Beverly Sills (in the only Handel role other than Cleopatra she ever sang on stage) and a young Tatiana Troyanos (a late replacement for, I believe, Shirley Verrett).

Conducted by Julius Rudel, it was even more mercilessly cut and transposed than the NYCO Giulio Cesare but enough remained for me to marvel at its riches. Although Troyanos only recorded one aria and one duet (with Benita Valente) many years later, it remained the Handel part she sang most often, including a stirring concert performance opposite an icy June Anderson I attended in 1985.

Star mezzos have guaranteed that Ariodante has had a rich history on recordings, although I’ve never sought out the version on Farao—the scary prospect of Ann Murray singing it in 2000 dissuaded me. Though Janet Baker seems to be disliked by many, she is—for me—the great Handel singer of the recorded era; no one else so convincingly turns each da capo aria into a telling moment in her character’s journey. As should always be the case but seldom is, the ornaments added for each repeated A section actually sound like they mean something musically and dramatically.

Live broadcasts of Tamerlano, Admeto, and Orlando, all happily released on the invaluable Ponto label, reveal Baker as a peerless Handelian, as do her EMI cantatas and her Philips recital, both conducted by Raymond Leppard. Recorded only a few years before her retirement from the opera stage, Leppard’s 1979 complete Ariodante for Philips unfortunately finds Baker sounding occasionally labored and heavy yet it remains a valuable though flawed document of this great artist in a complete role. One is grateful that this set (although officially out of print) remains easily available.

Another superb Handel singer, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, recorded her own version following stage performances at the 1996 Goettingen Handel Festival (Baker never sang the role on stage). Unfortunately, nearly all of Hunt Lieberson’s Handel recordings are conducted by Nicholas McGegan whose work nearly always strikes me as lightweight and superficial, rarely inspiring Hunt Lieberson to the heights of which she was capable, heights one can experience in her recordings for William Christie: Charpentier’s Médée or Rameau’s Phèdre or her sublime Irene on the DVD of the Peter Sellars production of Handel’s Theodora.

The CD on the Avie label she recorded near the end of her life conducted by Harry Bicket is likewise more indicative of her sovereign Handel singing than the many McGegan recordings. Likewise, a recently issued CD of highlights from a live Hercules conducted by Craig Smith is a must-have.

Although there are wonderful moments in her Ariodante, the Harmonia Mundi release finds her at less than her best and unfortunately spotlights her sometimes labored coloratura. I heard Hunt Lieberson sing an all-Handel program in 1999 with the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the “Scherza infida” in particular was ineffably moving, far surpassing the CD.

A third complete version on Archiv features Anne-Sofie von Otter in one of her most congenial roles, conducted by Marc Minkowski, her frequent collaborator. Von Otter’s take on the role is most often criticized for her extraordinarily expansive version of “Scherza infida.” Although I’ve never been a “timings-obsessive” (usually a hobby for Wagnerites), it’s striking to consider the timings for that aria from these four complete recordings:

  • Von Otter: 11:52
  • DiDonato: 9:57
  • Hunt Lieberson: 8:46
  • Baker: 7:47

Many have dismissed the von Otter version (more than a third longer than Baker’s) as self-indulgent and excessive, but she and Minkowski spin it out with great care transforming this aria—the opera’s true emotional centerpiece—into something truly wrenching. Baker’s is equally remarkable for being the fastest; her burning intensity and propulsive momentum are compelling, whereas Hunt Lieberson’s, while typically lovely, is less moving than expected particularly compared to the others.

How does DiDonato compare to these three? Although I harbor reservations about some of her recent singing, she certainly stands tall in this company. Blessed with an impeccable florid technique, hers is easily the most accomplished coloratura singing of any, particularly the first act aria, “Con l’ali di costanza,” one of the most extraordinarily challenging arias Handel ever wrote. Her “Dopo notte,” nearly as elaborate, works less well, becoming careful rather than triumphant. Although not as slow as von Otter’s, her anguished “Scherza infida” impresses but eventually becomes fussy and self-conscious.

Her Ariodante often held me at arm’s length—rather like her recent all-Handel “Furore” program (both the CD and the live concert at Zankel Hall, but I’m told she and conductor Christophe Rousset didn’t get along which might account for that enterprise’s misfire). All too often I’m admiring DiDonato’s extraordinary singing rather than experiencing her character’s vicissitudes.

This response is a recent one—her early Handel recordings, all with Curtis—“Amor e gelosia,” the wonderful duet CD with Patrizia Ciofi, her inspired Radamisto and also her Elmira in Floridante (a recording marred by the ruinous performance of Marjana Mijanovic in the title role)—are all more restrained, less mannered, more satisfying.

One of DiDonato’s great strengths, her ebullient generosity as an artist and as a person (on view at her fascinating blog formerly called “Yankee Diva”), can sometimes become too much; lately I have found myself too aware of the “art” whereas I usually prefer a “less is more” approach. Likewise, I found her recent Komponist in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met wearingly over-eager and strained.

Although DiDonato is clearly this set’s raison d’être, a shining Karina Gauvin as Ariodante’s wronged lover Ginevra steals the show. As intense as DiDonato, Gauvin strikes me as more natural and therefore more moving. She, like Baker, has the real gift for turning the “artificial” da capo form into a real revelation of character tracing Ginevra’s journey from joy to mystified betrayal to happy redemption. A miscast Edith Mathis in the Leppard version and a grand but wiry Juliana Gondek for McGegan are no competition, and the lustrous Gauvin even surpasses Lynne Dawson, the radiant princess of Scotland for Minkowski.

Perhaps Handel’s nastiest character, Polinesso, who stage manages Ginevra’s supposed infidelity, was written for a woman but is now often sung by a countertenor, although only the Leppard version features one: James Bowman in one of his most unfortunate recordings. Marie-Nicole Lemieux is on her best behavior for Curtis (particularly after some recent excruciatingly over-the-top portrayals), but she can’t compete with the real coup of Minkowski’s version: Ewa Podle?’s grandly arrogant villain. Lemieux is more successful in slyly evoking Polinesso’s duplicity, but Podle?’s extravagant boldness disarms most objections to her unorthodox vocal approach, and she dominates her scenes like no other Polinesso.

A wit on a Spanish Early Music internet newsgroup suggested that one could roll a boulder down any road and hit lyric twenty sopranos capable of singing Dalinda as well or better than Curtis’s Sabina Puértolas. It’s hard to disagree; her acidic voice and waspish manner conflict with Dalinda’s basically sympathetic character. McGegan’s Lisa Saffer, despite a sometimes grating voice, captures more of Dalinda’s vivacity and pathos. Minkowski’s Veronica Cangemi is vocally preferable to either, but I retain a great fondness for Norma Burrowes, Leppard’s enchanting Dalinda, in one of her too few recordings.

Although I’ve admired him in the past, the divinely-named Topi Lehtipuu sounds off-form for Curtis, making heavy weather of his two bravura arias in act 2 which are full of effortful, aspirated coloratura. Both he and Puértolas, however, make something touching of their reconciliation duet in the final act.

Any Lurcanio comes up short compared to Richard Croft’s magnificent portrayal for Minkowski, particularly his “Il tuo sangue,” an extraordinary example of florid tenor singing. The moving bass role of the King, Ginevra’s father, appears to bring out the best in its singers–a young Samuel Ramey, Nicolas Cavallier and a very young Denis Sedov (before he vanished from the scene) all do very well, as does Curtis’s Matthew Brook, an unfamiliar name to me but clearly a singer to watch for in the future.

When these forces (minus Lehtipuu) toured Europe a few months ago to promote the CD release, response was decidedly mixed about conductor Alan Curtis and his orchestra Il Complesso Barocco. For many, he is hopelessly old-fashioned and undramatic. While his conservatively traditional approach avoids the tempo extremes of many of his continental contemporaries, this Ariodante stands as one of his more successful recordings, deeply felt in ways that McGegan’s never is.

My suspicion is that much of the anti-Curtis sentiment arises from his near-ubiquity—in the past decade he has recorded far more Handel than anyone else, with many more to come; I understand there are plans for CDs of Giove in Argo, Giulio Cesare, Arianna in Creta, Agrippina, and possibly a remake of his 1970s seminal recording of Admeto. Rumor has it that large financial contributions from novelist Donna Leon make all these recordings and tours possible. Many other conductors and orchestras would surely kill for this kind of support and exposure.

Curtis’s version satisfies; however, I do prefer Minkowski’s. For one thing, his larger orchestra (forty-two compared to Curtis’s twenty-seven) is much more sumptuous and virtuosic. It’s a commonplace that younger HIP conductors are inevitably faster and that’s certainly true here (the “Scherza infida” not withstanding): Curtis’s is appreciably slower, nearly fifteen minutes longer than Minkowski’s exciting version which was recorded live adding immeasurably to its dramatic impact, particularly since Curtis’s remains steadfastly studio-bound, although less so than his rather dull Archiv Alcina with DiDonato as the lovesick sorceress.

For those unfamiliar with Ariodante or even opera seria in general, Virgin’s new version is definitely recommendable and has the virtue of being less expensive than either Archiv’s or Harmonia Mundi’s. The opera is done complete with apt ornamentation and excellent recorded sound. The cast and conducting can be uneven although Curtis always beautifully supports his singers and the ballet music is particularly well done, and Gauvin and DiDonato (despite my reservations) are very fine particularly in their three duets where they spectacularly trade trill after effortless trill.

Yet I can’t help but wish that DiDonato (and Gauvin who works a lot with him too) would move on to conductors besides Curtis. It will be fascinating to hear DiDonato collaborating again with William Christie (at the MET this winter in The Enchanted Island) with whom she did her star-making turn as Dejanira in the Luc Bondy production of Handel’s Hercules. And YouTube contains an intriguing clip of DiDonato singing Rameau with Minkowski suggesting fascinating possibilities there too!

50 comments

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    Can’t you be nice about DiDonato without attempting a bit of Fleming bashing as your point of departure?

    • armerjacquino says:

      Not to mention the ‘scary’ Ann Murray.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Oops, only just noticed that I hit reply too early. I think it’s odd to write a review which is so scrupulous in its comparison of available recordings, and then dismiss a major contender unlistened-to, with one throwaway remark.

        It’s not quite as good as the Minkowski, but the Bolton recording is thrilling and features some top-quality singing and playing (nice to hear the under-recorded Julie Kaufmann). Tone queens won’t appreciate Murray’s Ariodante, but it’s a very exciting performance, certainly one to rate alongside Von Otter and preferable for me to Baker, whose singing has always struck me as too stolid for words.

      • grimoaldo says:

        And “icy” June Anderson!

  • OMG what an amazing review, DeCaffarrelli. And, as one cow says to another -- moo! You just took words out of my mouth, I agree with you on virtually every point, including JDD’s slightly dissappointing performance, and Gauvin’s ongoing excellence.

    Has anybody heard this before ?

    Actually, I loved Curtis’ Alcina recording, and practically think it is (for me) the best Handel opera recording ever done. I sort of re-discovered the score through his loving, unobtrusive handling of it, and the quite flawless cast. His other Handel recordings, I’m afraid, show a lack of imagination both in shaping of phrases and use of continuo forces. As you, I believe that Minko’s groundbreaking recording of Ariodante for Archiv has changed forever the world of Handel opera performances. It is a cornerstone. Not always easy on the ear or even aesthetically plausible, but completely absorbing dramtically at virtually every moment.

    • louannd says:

      Thank you for this review. This is one of those fantastic pieces of education from Parterre that lights up the brain, and, will be tucked away in the Evernote notebook for future study.

      @Cerquetti -- I enjoyed that clip much. Thanks.

      • Often admonished says:

        Damn fine review. Far too good for here.

        After a truckload of Hogwood-size munchkin Handel recordings Minko’s Ariodante tried to marry big(-ish) voices with baroque style. And it worked. It’s a milestone.

        • armerjacquino says:

          Yep, Hogwood would never have thought to marry a big voice with baroque style. That’s why he didn’t record ATHALIA with Sutherland.

          • Often admonished says:

            That was Decca’s idea and the only way they thought they could sell that oratorio. Joan spent all the sessions bitching about everyone else’s technique, placement and breathing.

    • Here Gauvin gives poor Bartoli a run for her money

      eat this, Ceci!

      • Clita del Toro says:

        I saw Gauvin sing in Brahams’ A German Requiem and I think, some other pieces, but can’t remember what??? She is a wonderful singer, imo.

      • MAXOMUCHACHO says:

        Superb singer, flawless technique but juicy as Ma Rainey. And without Ceci-risi’s piggy nostrils flaring during the florid passages, makes this twice as nice!

        • MontyNostry says:

          Hasn’t Gauvin been given recitals of French song recently? I think I might have missed her London appearance, though :-(

  • Enzo Bordello says:

    I hosted a live interview with Gauvin here in Chicago while she was appearing at the 2008 Grant Park Music Festival. She’s a very no-nonsense artist who takes her work quite seriously. She admitted to having little affinity for 19th century opera, although she did dabble in it from time to time (i.e., LES PECHEURS DE PERLES for Montreal) I think this has limited her appeal to a wider audience. But she knows what she wants to do with her career and I admire that. BTW, when I asked her about singers who inspired her, Gauvin expressed enormous admiration for Janet Baker.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      From the sounds of things, her options vis a vis C19th rep would be extremely limited, so that’s just as well. It strikes me as a voice of rare beauty, but gossamer light.

  • grimoaldo says:

    Operas are still being recorded, but the problem (if it can indeed be called a problem) is that fewer and fewer come from the 19th and 20th century.

    On the other hand operas written before 1800 are released regularly—two Cavalli operas appear soon, as do works by Campra, Gluck, Terradellas, etc.

    I wonder why this is. Do Baroque operas on CD sell better than Verdi or whoever? Is it a cult following that other eras do not enjoy or that there are more excellent performers for that era today?

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      It’s partly due to duplication. Inexplicably, Campra is under represented in the catalogue when compared to Verdi.

      I think your point about the kinds of artists who are around today is also valid though. It’s not so much that there was nobody 30 years ago able to do justice to these baroque scores- it’s more that it has become legitimate to forge a career as a singer now even if you have a voice which can only encompass baroque and classical repertoire, at least in terms of opera.

    • The costs of recording a Baroque opera must be lower than recording a 19th-century one, for one thing--the orchestras are much smaller and the singers are often not big names.

    • Interesting question. I think that the reasons are (as usual) manifold.

      1. The “baroque revolution” of the late 1960s- mid 1980s. Indeed all you could hear is straight tone, mostly tiny or “castrated” voices. But players had to deal with approaching 17th-early 19th rep using a clean slate. One of the byproducts -- massively improved choral standards throughout Europe (except Italy, possibly) and recently in the USA.

      2. The “Christie” French revolution -- quite distinct from the German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and English Baroque revolutions. Christie had nothing to build on, and had to re-construct the way to approach text, phrasing, decorations (agrements) and improvisation. To me his contribution is the most deeply rooted, the most long-winded and consistent, of the “1st generation” of period performers. Result -- a whole new school of singing, two generations of French singers (some of them quite good), naturaleness and homogenity of approach.

      3. The “counter-revolution” of the late 1980s-middle 1990s. People like Gardiner (the first one), later Jacobs, later on Hogwood (even him), and then the emerging Minkowski, starting to use “conventional rep” opera performers. The emergence of singers who could deal with both sides of the rep -- von Otter, Orgonasova, Rolfe Johnson, John Mark Ainsley et al -- “vibrato is not your enemy”, one might affix suhc a slogan to this period. German early to late baroque still apart, mostly Dutch and German specialists pereferring to use straight-toners or more ‘instrumentally-inclined’ singers such as, ahm, Barbara Schlick or Charles Daniels (a very good musician, BTW, in his own right.

      4. Middle 1990s -- the “Italian baroque” revolution. Now Italian impresarios, harpsichordists, choral conductors, scholars, musicians and singers re-discover their own heritage, possibly handed to them by the brits and dutch. Some marvelous examples -- Concerto Italiano, La Venexiana, singers such as Sara Mingardo or the delightful Anna Bonitatibus.

      So nowadays singers have the technical mastery and knowhow, they are being tutored in such places as Den Haag (by teachers such as Elly Ameling, Rita Damms etc) and Schola Cantorum branches (Paris and Basle). They know how to articulate, how to use straight tone for damatico-musical purposes, and to use ‘modern singing’ at other times, they can easily improvise the recapitulation sections, they can let go their ego and develop an ‘ensemble singing’ awareness when duetting or trioing.

      All in all, there has been much re-discovery of 17th-18th century rep, along with development of instrumental and vocal capability of doing justice to this music. There are fewer big voices around nowadays (the ‘big voice’ phenomenon itself is arguably a by-product of middle 19th century to early 20th century instrumental developments and compositional requirements). I have just watched some scenes of the Tony Palmer Wagner bio, with Dame Gwyneth and Peter Hoffmann rehearsing T&I scenes with apparent (genuinely historical) difficulties and it strikes me that the window of opportunities for this kind of voice production existed for a relatively short while in operatic history -- roughly 1880s-1960s. Luckily all the well-known vocal superhumans were aurally (at least) documented. But, historically dpeaking, this doesn’t mean that its an ongoing or ‘natural’ phenomenon.

      I love the core 19th century rep as much as the next melomane, and mourn the dearth of available singers to do justice to it, to but it seems to me that the 17th-18th century rep is better suited for human capacity and endurance. The Flagdtads, Nilssons, Prices, Vickers and Melchiors are the exception to the rule, a rare window lasting not more than 90 years at the most. And please, no Sophie Arnould, Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient, Adolphe Nourrit, Cornelie Falcon (she lasted for less than 10 years, remember?) or Pauline Viardot bashing. We KNOW that pre-Wagner the theaters were smaller, likewise the orchestras. Also, the pitch was probably lower. Wagner was decreed unperformable, and in a way, he still IS.
      So let’s celebrate the fact that we have such a wealth of newly discovered repertoire, along with the vocal forces able to do justice to it. And keep in mind that we still have people able to perform the mammoth works we love so much, such as Jennifer Wilson or Nina Stemme, or Kaufmann.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        CF, I don’t understand what you mean about large voices- why wouldn’t or couldn’t it be an ongoing phenomenon? Obviously they came into their own with the expansion both of theatres and orchestras, and changes in compositional style, but this impacts on their desirability (which is now ongoing), surely not their incidence.

      • grimoaldo says:

        Very interesting CF, thank you.
        Something else that helped the “big voice” era was that it was always assumed by the composers and everyone else that the stars would sing their big numbers right at the very front of the stage and that obviously helped them project their voices over the orchestra whereas now soloists are often placed way upstage.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Smashing and comprehensive reply. I agree that the mixture of the purist, ‘straight tone’ with the more dramatic ‘operatic’ style is the way we like our Handel, Bach, Telemann etc done these days.

        But let’s not ignore taste here- and taste isn’t ‘authentic’, or right, or anything else. The first recording of Dido’s Lament I ever heard was Flagstad’s, when I was 13. I thought it was mindblowing and wonderful. Then I bought the Jessye/Allen/McLaughlin recording, which was grander and more opulent still. Then my father played me Emma Kirkby’s version of the same music, and I found it beautiful and moving in a different way. Adrian Boult’s recording of the Messiah, with an orchestra and chorus numbering eight million and Sutherland and Bumbry is fab. So is Minkowski’s.

        We’re in the fortunate position of knowing more or less how a composer wanted his works to sound. And we also get to hear how the aesthetics of every different age since has interpreted that composer’s works. I like a slow, stately Cosi with a big lush band and Schwarzkopf. I like a quick, lithe one with original instruments and Persson. I like Roberta Peters tootling away in alt in Barbiere and a nice lush mezzo singing the actual notes. Back- way back- in the day, Aida was sung by singers we would now call light lyrics; I would love to hear that done now, in a 600 seater.

        A work of genius will survive; in fact, only a work of genius will survive. The way we want to hear the Mozart/Da Ponte operas now is very different to the way people wanted to hear them in the 70s, or the 50s, or the 30s. Thanks to technology, we get to hear them all.

  • grimoaldo says:

    Another point raised by this interesting review -- one often reads that audiences in Handel’s time did not listen to the music, they were playing cards, drinking, visiting each other, etc. But a long and quiet aria such as the great “Scherza, infida,” shows that audiences did quiet down and listen to the stars of the show singing their big numbers, or Handel would not have had the confidence to write such an extended quietly intense piece.