Tolomeo – Opera in three acts [libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym after Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s “Tolomeo et Alessandro”]
Tolomeo – Ann Hallenberg
Seleuce – Karina Gauvin
Elisa – Anna Bonitatibus
Alessandro – Romina Basso
Araspe – Pietro Spagnoli
Il Complesso Barocco
Alan Curtis (harpsichord)
Recorded September 2006 in Chiesa di Santa Maria della Rosa, Tuscania
Reviewed by: John T. Hughes
Reviewed: March 2008
CD No: ARCHIV PRODUKTION
477 7106 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 28 minutes
“Tolomeo” is not the most well-drawn dramatically of Handel’s operas, either as regards characters or situations, but it is certainly worth hearing, with some fine arias.
What would baroque opera be without disguises and mistaken identity? Tolomeo, King of Egypt, is driven out by his mother, Cleopatra (Caesar’s lady came later), and arrives in Cyprus as a shepherd. His wife, Seleuce, traces him to the island, where she poses as a shepherdess. Then lo! His brother Alessandro is shipwrecked, only to wade ashore. Where? Well, Cyprus , of course. Obligatory convoluted relationships occur when Araspe, King of Cyrus, falls in love with Seleuce, or Delia the shepherdess, while his sister Elisa is besotted by Tolomeo, or Osmino the shepherd. Tolomeo and Seleuce are reunited by the opera’s close.
The work received its premiere on 30 April 1728 at the King’s Theatre in London . Only five arias and the overture (some glorious music for the horns) exceed five minutes. Gentle variations are included in da capo sections. Three of the characters are sung by mezzos/contraltos, though their timbres have a different hue, from the highest range of Anna Bonitatibus to the contralto depth of Romina Basso. All the soloists give a laudable performance. Alan Curtis directs with conviction. Slow arias are lovingly shaped, while fast ones are delivered with brio. His orchestra responds admirably.
Somewhat strangely, Elisa has the most arias. She sings of murmuring waves, flowers and gentle breezes, and had one not read the story beforehand one might have thought what a nice lady she was. One would be wrong. In Scene 5 of Act Two she urges Alessandro to kill Tolomeo by “ripping open his breast”. Bonitatibus has the measure of the role, be it expressing sweetness and light or voicing Elisa’s baser emotions. She experiences no difficulties in Handel’s frequently involved figurations and reveals Elisa as the most varied character.
I have long had respect for the performances of Pietro Spagnoli, while thinking of him more a singer of Mozart and Rossini than of Handel, but I never realised he had the vocal agility that he shows in Araspe’s three fine arias. He enunciates clearly all the short notes in the divisions in ‘Piangi pur’, with a flexibility one might not expect from a low-voiced male vocalist. Romina Basso impressed me when I first heard her two or three years ago, and I enjoyed her contributions here. Her deep tone flows (in an inexact comparison) like liquid chocolate (dark, not milk), well heard in ‘Se l’interno pur vedono’.
Seleuce is sung with clean tone by Karina Gauvin, the middle fuller than the top, though in places a slightly too prominent orchestra almost covers her low notes, which are rather soft-grained. Nevertheless, she sings stylishly. As Tolomeo, Ann Hallenberg brings warmth in her middle range and shows herself as capable of rippling through roulades as are her colleagues. She makes Tolomeo a heroic figure within Handel’s limited characterisations, but in her singing smoothness of line is disturbed by her emphasising the rolled ‘r’, which she does more so (and less naturally) than the Italians in the cast. In ‘Son qual rocca’ in Act Three, I find it somewhere between laughable and irritating: she hits the ‘r’ so hard it resembles a roll on a snare drum. Those who do not mind will have no problem.
The recording runs for 148 minutes, with one act per disc, an advantage of continuity. However, had the first four scenes of Act Two been included on the first CD only two discs would have been needed. I should have thought that that would have sold more copies, as it would have been cheaper for potential purchasers, but I am not in marketing. The position remains that this is a set worthy of Handelians’ consideration.