“Il caro Sassone: HANDEL in Italy” = HANDEL: Armida abbandonata, HWV 105; Delirio Amoroso, HWV 99: Sonata; Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, HWV 46a: Aria: “Lascia la spina”; Salve Regina, HWV 241; La Resurrezione, HWV 47: Aria: “Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno”; Tu Fedel? tu costante?, HWV 171: Sonata; Alpestre monte, HWV 81; Sonata a 5, HWV 288: Andante; Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, HWV 96: Recitativo: “Tirsi, mio caro” and Aria: “Barbaro, tu non credi”; Aminta e Fillide, HWV 83: Aria: “Se vago rio” – Lucy Crowe, soprano/ The English Concert / Harry Bicket – Harmonia mundi USA HMU 907559, 74:33 ****:
According to early Handel biographer John Mainwaring, Venetian audiences were so taken with Handel’s opera Agrippina that they shouted “viva il caro Sassone” (“long live the dear Saxon”). Hence the title of this album dedicated to the often-brilliant music of Handel’s Italian years, which lasted from 1706 to 1710, the year of Agrippina’s premiere. Handel had earned his operatic spurs working with the Gänsemarkt opera in Hamburg and would make his highly successful debut in London with Rinaldo in 1711. But as David Vickers writes in his notes to this recording, if during his stay in Italy “Handel was anxious to compose music for the theater, it is curious that he spent most of his time in Rome, where public opera was forbidden by Papal decree.” Indeed, Handel’s Italian sojourn produced only two of his many operas: Rodrigo, written for Florence in 1707, and Agrippina. Most of the vocal works he produced in Italy were secular cantatas or sacred compositions, a quite number of them written for the Marquis Francesco Ruspoli of Rome.
Ruspoli was connected with the Arcadian Academy, a group of arts lovers and patrons who met for Sunday afternoon concerts of new music. The Marquis sponsored and hosted these concerts, which featured many of the secular cantatas Handel produced in Rome. Among them are Aminta e Fillide, probably the first cantata Handel wrote for Ruspoli; Clori, Tirsi e Fileno; and finest of all, Armida abbandonata.
The subject of Aminta e Fillide is the attempt of shepherd Aminta to convince Fillide, who has dedicated her chastity to the gods, that she should give in to him instead. The siege engine that breaks the maiden’s resistance is the brief, pretty aria Se vago rio (“Though a pretty river”), with its accompaniment of spizzicato strings mimicking a shepherd’s lyre. Clori, Tirsi e Fileno tells the story of the vamp Clori and her two lovers, Tirsi and Fileno. Barbaro, tu non credi (“Barbarous one, you don’t believe me”) is Clori’s passionate (and thoroughly disingenuous) answer to Tirsi’s claims that she’s two-timing him. She invites him to tear open her breast with his sword and examine her heart (squarcia col ferro il sen, / e osserva il core!). Talk about disarming! How can a guy resist a plea like that? Handel’s music shows him not merely capable of beautiful melody and dazzling instrumental display from the solo violin but of the shrewd psychological insight that distinguishes his operas from just about every other Baroque composer.
The shoe’s on the other foot in Handel’s Armida abbandonata. Here, the male is the villain, as the sorceress Armida laments her abandonment by her lover Rinaldo. At first, she itches to conjure up sea monsters to devour his departing ship but thinking better of this, reins in the stormy sea that her anger has whipped up and then confesses, in a final heart-tugging aria, that she still loves her errant beau. Wisely, Lucy Crowe and Harry Bicket give us the entire, entirely wonderful, cantata.
Sacred works that Handel composed for the Marquis Ruspoli are here as well, providing a study in contrasts. Salve Regina, written for Trinity Sunday 1707, is a delicately impassioned cry for mercy from the Mother of Mercies. The competing moods of remorse and dawning hope for intercession are beautifully captured by Handel. Different in mood entirely is the aria Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno (“Be unbarred, O gates of Avernus”) from Handel’s brilliant oratorio La Rezurrezione, first performed on Easter Sunday 1708. It’s delivered by an angel standing before the gates of Hell who demands that they be unbarred to admit the triumphant Jesus. The accompaniment of the aria’s A section is aflame with dazzling music for pairs of trumpets and oboes, over which the soprano soars in an equally fiery coloratura display.
To further highlight the effectiveness of Handel’s instrumental writing, we have three sonatas, all displaying very different characters and tempi, from sprightly, to dark-hued and -humored, to slow and gracious (the Andante from Sonata a 5, HWV 288, Handel’s first concerto, possibly written for Arcangelo Corelli).
The range of works included is a tribute to the scope of Handel’s talents even at this early date, and Lucy Crowe pays Handel the compliment of beautifully sung, expertly characterized performances. She’s able to capture the very different emotions of Armida and of Salve Regina, while her light agile soprano negotiates the thicket of coloratura notes in Barbaro, tu non credi and Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno with assurance plus impeccable intonation. She has a lovely instrument and the acting chops to use it to best dramatic effect. The support she receives from Harry Bicket and the English Concert is equally spirited and refined. I wish somebody would give them the chance to record all of Handel’s Resurrezione. Harmonia mundi, what do you say? In any event, thanks to all involved for this very attractive sampling of music from Handel’s Italian years.
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich