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!