“Ombra Cara: Arias of GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL” – Bejun Mehta, countertenor / Rosemary Joshua, soprano / Freiburger Barockorchester / René Jacobs – Harmonia mundi HMC 902077, 71:46 (+ DVD “Ombra Cara: Making of the Recording”) *****:
The concept behind this album is a speculative one: this is the sort of program that a singer of the eighteenth century might put together to showcase his talents. The idea would be to display a variety of moods, as well as all those expected technical flourishes such as appoggiaturas and coloratura passages. The conceit is that if a putative virtuoso were to choose a program of Handel arias written for a farorite singer of the day such as the castrato Francesco Bernardi detto Senesino, there would be enough variety to fill an evening.
Having established this concept, the notes to the recording then derail it by conceding that the first two operas on the bill, Amadigi di Gaula and Agrippina, were not written with Senesino in mind, though most of the rest were. No matter: the most important issue, variety, is admirably addressed by this program, which takes us from one of Handel’s earliest operas, Rodrigo, premiered in Florence in 1707, to late works written for London theaters, Sosarme (1732) and Orlando (1733).
We start with a stirringly militant aria, complete with trumpet solo, from Amadigi di Gaula (1715). It bears a striking resemblance to the Alla Hornpipe movement from Handel’s Water Music Suite in F Major of two years later. A similarly militant aria from Orlando is even more virtuosic. From the same opera we have the much-praised mad scene from Act II. Orlando imagines that he crosses the River Styx to do battle with the ghosts and demons of the Underworld. In a series of accompanied recitatives and arias, he lurches from tender reflection to insane fury, freighted with generous dollops of coloratura, of course.
There are despairing arias such as Voi, che udite il mio lamento from Agrippina, in which the character Ottone laments his rejection by his love, Poppea, and the accusations of treachery mounted against him. Equally somber is the lament of Tolomeo (Ptolemy), who believes he is taking poison though it is only a sleeping draught; tragedy will eventually turn to triumph in this convoluted tale of intrigue in the Egypt of the pharaohs. In the titular aria Ombra Cara from Radamisto, the hero speaks peace over the shade of his departed wife Zenobia. As with Tolomeo, however, the report of her death has been greatly exaggerated: she survives to be reunited with Radamisto at the end of the opera.
Finally, we have the tender, resigned duet Per le porte del tormento from Sosarme, which foretells the bliss that awaits the lovers following their travails, thus exploring a different set of emotions entirely through Handel’s music. To add further variety, the program includes the purely instrument Pasacaille section from the Overture to Rodrigo. Here, a solo violin has a virtuoso turn, and there are colorful passages as well for the oboes and bassoons. But this is only a brief departure from the vocal display.
The Freiburger Barockorchester shines in this piece and provides first-rate accompaniment throughout, but ultimately this is Bejun Mehta’s show. As a boy soprano, Mehta made some precocious recordings for Delos before going behind the microphones to produce well-received recordings by other musicians, including cellist Janos Starker. Then Mehta took up the study of voice again, working with legendary soprano Phyllis Curtin. Today, he’s one of the most sought-after countertenors in the world, winning praise for his portrayal of Orlando in revivals mounted by the Royal Opera Company and New York City Opera.
Mehta’s voice is a wonderfully pliant instrument. Those leaps, trills, and runs are negotiated with the kind of ease a great flutist would command. However, it’s the emotional involvement in the music that truly distinguishes his performances. Handel is known for the psychological depth of character he plumbs in his operas; by exploring a variety of emotional states, Mehta pays apt tribute to the fact. This is a thoroughly engaging program.
René Jacobs conducts with the vigor and involvement that he’s shown in his other critically acclaimed Handel recordings such as Giulio Cesare and Saul; Ombra Cara reunites Jacobs and Rosemary Joshua, who joined him for the recording of Saul. Her melting soprano is heard in only two selections on the present disc, more’s the pity. But then this is a showcase for the art of the countertenor, and a ravishing one it is. Enthusiastically recommended!
aria Sento la gioia (Amadigi di Gaula)
Otton, Otton; aria Voi, che udite il mio lamento (Agrippina)
aria Agitato da fiere tempeste (Riccardo primo, re d’Inghillterra)
recitativo Che più si tarda omai; accompagnato Inumano fratel; aria Stille amare (Tolomeo re d’Egitto)
accompagnato Ah! Stiglie larve; arioso Già latra Cerbero; accompagnato Ma la furia; aria Vaghe pupille (Orlando)
Passacaille from the Overture to Rodrigo
aria Ombra cara di mia sposa (Radimisto)
Fra tempeste funeste; Conrauco mormorio (Rodelinda)
recitativo T’ubbidirò, crudele; aria Fammi combattere (Orlando)
duetto Per le porte del tormento (Sosarme)