Handel: Partenope / Kuijken, Jacobs, Laki, La Petite Bande

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Elsewhere in this issue, in choosing the records of the year, I have singled Out the new version of Handel's opera Admeto for its broadly successful attempt at a true Handelian style. Well, those words were no sooner in the post to the Editor than I heard this new set, which considerably surpasses it in almost all regards: indeed this seems to me comfortably the best Handel opera recording I have heard. It is an easier opera to perform than the heroic ones of the 1720s (at least, to perform on records; perhaps it is not so easy on the stage— though I remember with pleasure its only English revival, at Abingdon in 1961). Partenope was written in 1730, for the first season of what was called the 'new Academy', run by Handel himself and his manager, after the collapse and the discrediting of the Royal Academy, of which Handel had been salaried musical director and which had organized opera in London since 1720. Handel now had a new team of singers, and the operas he wrote for them show distinctly the influence of the works he encountered during his talent-spotting trip to Italy. Partenope does so in particular. It is to a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia, markedly influenced by the vein of ironic humour popular in Venetian opera. The plot concerns the founding queen of Naples, Parthenope, and her various suitors, one of whom (Arsaces) deserted his betrothed (Rosmira) to woo her, and is pursued by Rosmira who in male clothes is herself masquerading as an admirer of Parthenope. The musical idiom beautifully catches the vivacity, the ironic wit, the gentle ardour and the charm that distinguish the plot. The musical textures are for the most part light and airy; there is more of rapid music than in most of Handel's operas; the phrase structure is simpler; and the vocal colour is different from usual—dictated, to be sure, by the particular cast Handel had at his disposal, yet characteristically he turned to positive ends the fact that he had only one soprano (Parthenope), one tenor, one baritone and all the rest altos of one kind or another. The orchestral texture, more often than usual, consists of just a violin line and continuo: the occasional more fully-scored aria, like Emilius's in Act I with its rich semi-contrapuntal string writing, or Rosmira's brilliant hunting aria with oboes and horns to end the act, accordingly makes a striking effect—and none more so than Arsaces's G minor lament, with muted violins, moaning flutes, theorbo and pizzicato basses, near the end of the opera. There are several ensemble numbers, including a trio and a quartet, but as the characters rarely sing simultaneously this does not make a geat deal of difference.

In Adnseto I questioned the wisdom of using so small an orchestra. Here the orchestra is much the same size, but it is about right since the music is so much less heroic in temper. It would perhaps be cynical to suggest that Handel, now he had to pay the bills himself, wrote music that worked well with fewer players; but with Partenope it could be not far from the truth. The group here p1a(s superbly: there is a dash and a sparkle to the string playing that makes the rapid passage work a real joy to listen to; the bass is firm and shapely; the wind playing is on the whole very well tuned; and the continuo playing provides sensible and unobtrusive support. Above all, the direction has the kind of rhythmic breadth and sense of purpose that I had despaired of meeting in an 'authentic' performance. Too often Handel's stature is diminished, the grandeur of his designs whittled down, by short-breathed and finicky phrasing. Here, in authentic timbres, Handel emerges as the giant he always did under the Woods and the Sargents, but without any over-inflation. This is greatly to the credit of the musicianship of Sigiswald Kuijken and his players. His orchestra has strings numbering, with four oboes and two bassoons, and pairs of flutes and horns and a trumpet as needed.

As for the singing, there are two names new to me of which I shall hope to hear very much more. One is the Parthenope, Krisztina Laki, a fluent and agile soprano with a happy glitter to her voice. She copes comfortably with the difficult divisions, and brings a suitably light expressive touch to the slower arias; altogether an accomplished and promising performance and an intelligent interpretation. Even more striking, perhaps, is the Rosmira of Helga Muller Molinari—plumb in her intonation (more so than anyone else in the cast), and capable of infusing her passage work with genuine vigour and passion. The angry C minor aria in the Second Act is magnificent, a real musical explosion of wrath; but the love music too is finely done. The timbre itself is not extraordinary, but the voice is perfectly focused and controlled. With the Arsaces (and this is the biggest part, composed for the famous castrato Bernacchi) I am less happy; as in Admeto, René Jacobs swoops and swoons too much, in a mannered way, and is not dependable over pitch. John York Skinner gives a capable account of the role of Armindus, Parthenope's ultimately successful lover, best in the direct style of his Act III aria than in the more expressive earlier ones. Martyn Hill as Emilius is firm and clear in the tenor arias, and accurate and expressive too; and Stephen Varcoe does his single aria in a pleasantly clean and light manner, without any booming or ranting.

Handelians may object, with some justification, that there is insufficient ornamentation in this set. That is true. Here and there a cadence crying for a trill is . . . well, left crying; and even the da caps sections of the arias are mostly sung without elaboration, which we know is contrary to Handel's expectation. Still, it is far better to do nothing than to do something wrongly or tastelessly, and that is particularly true in recordings, where one does not want to hear the same piece of bad decoration every time. Jacobs decorates a little, and some of the others do, too, very modestly. I wish a little more effort had been made over achieving a performing style a little more accurate and historical in this respect. On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for the execution of the recitatives, which (given in a form more complete than in the Handel-Gesellschaft score) move along quickly and conversationally, with the cadences correctly elided, while losing nothing of their dramatic force or their meaning from these excellent, and obviously well coached, singers. Altogether this set can be warmly recommended to lovers of Handel operas—and indeed to others too, who might find themselves drawn to become lovers of these masterpieces.

-- S.S., Gramophone [12/1979] Reviewing original LP

Product Description:

  • Release Date: August 14, 2015

  • Catalog Number: 88697529972

  • UPC: 886975299720

  • Label: Sony

  • Number of Discs: 3

  • Composer: George Frideric Handel

  • Conductor: Sigiswald Kuijken

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: La Petite Bande

  • Performer: Helga Müller-Molinari, John York Skinner, Krisztina Láki, René Jacobs, Stephen Varcoe