Handel: Arianna In Creta / Petrou, Katsouli, Et Al

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HANDEL Arianna in Creta , HWV 32 ? George Petrou, cond; Mata Katsuli ( Arianna ); Mary-Ellen Nesi ( Teseo ); Irini Karaianni ( Carilda...

HANDEL Arianna in Creta , HWV 32 ? George Petrou, cond; Mata Katsuli ( Arianna ); Mary-Ellen Nesi ( Teseo ); Irini Karaianni ( Carilda ); Marita Paparizou ( Tauride ); Theodora Baka ( Alceste ); Petros Magoulas ( Minos ); Orchestra of Patras (period instruments) ? MDG 6091375 (3 CDs: 163:14 & )

Something of a landmark has been achieved here. This set marks the last of Handel?s operas to achieve a commercial recording, rumors of the release on disc of the splendid performance of Arianna in Creta that Christoph Rousset took to various European festivals in 2002 having to date come to nothing. (It is also worth noting a Göttingen Festival production recording directed by Nicholas McGegan, but you have to be a member of the Festival to obtain that.)

Arianna in Creta , completed in the fall of 1733, dates from a difficult period in Handel?s London opera career. For the first time he was faced with competition from a new opera company, the Opera of the Nobility, an organization that had lured away many of Handel?s stars. Although the soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò had remained loyal to Handel (and would sing the first Arianna), he had thus had to find new singers, the most notable of whom, the mezzo castrato Giovanni Carestini was destined to become one of the stars of Arianna in the role of Teseo (Theseus). The first performance was given at the King?s Theatre on January 26, 1734, some three weeks after the Nobility had opened its doors with another Ariadne opera, Porpora?s Arianna in Nasso . The new opera proved popular with audiences, achieving a highly respectable first run of 17 performances (of Handel?s subsequent operas only Alcina had a longer opening run). But Arianna has not had much of a press since, most modern writers veering somewhere between Dent?s damning ?a lamentable falling off after Orlando (1733),? and Lang?s slightly more charitable ?only an average opera.? Well, Orlando just happens to be one of Handel?s two or three greatest operas, so the comparison is hardly just?even Handel could not perch on the summit of Olympus all the time?and Rousset?s performance revealed that it is rather more than ?only an average opera.?

The anonymous libretto is based on a 1715 libretto by Pietro Pariati, but it follows more closely an adaptation made for Leonardo Leo in 1729. The plot revolves around the familiar myth of the adventurous Theseus?s trip to Crete to slay the monstrous Minotaur, a task achieved in the myth (but not in the opera) with the assistance of his beloved Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos. Needless to say, further romantic entanglements are woven in, not least those involving Carilda, an intended victim of the Minotaur who is also in love with Theseus, thus arousing Ariadne?s jealously. Arianna is unusual among Handel?s operas in two respects: firstly, that much of the best music appears in the first of the three acts; and secondly, that rarely for Handel, the focus of characterization is on the leading men, not the women. As Anthony Hicks observes in New Grove Opera , Handel seems to have taken special trouble over the music for his new star, nearly all the music for Carestini?s Teseo being of a high order and well varied. ?Nel pugnar,? the first of his two act-I arias is a splendidly heroic bravura showpiece, while ?Sdegnata sei? (also act I) is an especially beautiful lyric outpouring in which, over slowly undulating string arpeggios, Teseo reassures Arianna of his love for her. In both acts II and III, there are fine accompagnatos for Teseo, the latter being the superbly dramatic scene in which he encounters and slays the Minotaur. Teseo thus emerges as a well-defined character, an unblemished hero whose love for Ariadne (at least here!) is utterly steadfast. Nearly as impressive is the music for Alceste, the man whose unwavering love for the unyielding Carilda is finally rewarded. Here, Handel created something of a mirror image of Teseo, Alceste?s essential gentleness conveyed in a series of arias that underline his essential sensitivity and devotion.

The present performance is based on a staging given at the Opera Festival of Ancient Corinth in July 2005, the same source as a highly praised recording of Handel?s pastiche Oreste , also given in 1734. In these pages (28:5), my erstwhile colleague Bernard Jacobson suggested that George Petrou?s Oreste had attained a level of performance that ?throughout can stand comparison with the best efforts of Handel singers, players, and conductors anywhere in the world.? Allowing for the odd caveat, those words can unhesitatingly be translated to this Arianna . Not the least reason is the direction of Petrou, whose conducting here suggests he is a born Handelian who not only has an unerring feel for rhythmic articulation, pacing, and the shaping of Handel?s arias, but also a keen dramatic sense. By the standards of what today often passes for style, some may even find Petrou lacking in flamboyance; I can only say I found his sensible, but never dull approach a refreshing change. He draws generally excellent playing from an orchestra described as playing period instruments, although I suspect from the evidence of my ears and the booklet notes that this is more a modern-instrument orchestra that puts on gut strings for Baroque music than one trained in period practice. Petrou rightly employs two harpsichords, but wrongly uses both in secco recitatives to provide colorful washes of arpeggiated sound.

Vocally the performance is nearly dominated by the magnificent Teseo of mezzo Mary-Ellen Nesi. On this evidence, I can only express incredulity that Nesi has to date not hit the headlines in a very big way. Not only has the voice itself a full, lustrous quality, but it is superbly controlled across the range (listen, for example, for the rock-solid evenness of tonal production in the lovely ?sleep? aria at the start of act II), while also capable of producing thrillingly accurate passaggi in bravura passages. The reprise of ?Sdegnata sei? starts with an exquisite messa di voce , while throughout Nesi treats us to perfectly executed trills, and, like the rest of the cast, ornamentation of repeats that never transgress style or taste. I wrote ?nearly dominated? above advisedly, since, mirabile dictu , we have here a second supreme performance in the shape of Theodora Baka?s Alceste. Again, this young Greek singer starts with the advantage of an intrinsically lovely voice, here deployed to utterly touching affect in the warmly lyrical music Handel gave the faithful lover. In particular ?Tal? or d?oscuro? (act I) is a model of gracious phrasing that gives every suggestion that Baka has an outstanding career ahead of her.

That Ariadne is a character who curiously refuses to come to life is no fault of Mata Katsuli, who sings the role with considerable dramatic conviction, although paradoxically her diction is not all it might be. The voice itself is fresh and attractive, but it is not always under complete control, particularly in the upper register. Much the same can be said of Irini Karaianni?s otherwise first-rate Carilda, while the smaller roles of Minos and his general Tauride are more than capably filled by bass Petros Magoulas and Marita Paparizou respectively.

While the sound is fine, MDG?s presentation is unworthy of this outstanding achievement. The libretto in particular is a disgrace, with the strange English translation (it looks like the original) frequently out of synch with the Italian, and typographic errors in both languages so frequent as to suggest that no one even bothered to look at the result, let alone proofread it. Still, that should not (indeed, must not) deter all Handelians from making an immediate acquisition of this magnificent set.

FANFARE: Brian Robins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 01, 2006

  • UPC: 760623137520

  • Catalog Number: 6091375-2

  • Label: MDG

  • Number of Discs: 3

  • Composer: George Frideric Handel

  • Conductor: George Petrou

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Orchestra of Patras

  • Performer: Irini Karaianni, Marita Paparizou, Mary-Ellen Nesi, Mata Katsouli, Petros Magoulas, Theodora Baka