Agrippina – Io di Roma il Giove sono
Orlando – Lascia Amore, e segui Marte!
Siroe, re di Persia – Ove son! Che m’avenne!; Gelido in ogni vena
Rodelinda – Tirannia gli diede il regno
Ariodante – Invida sorte; Voli colla sua tromba
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo – Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori
Rinaldo – Sibilar gl’angui d’Aletto
Ariodante – Al sen ti stringo e parto
Orlando – O voi del mio poter ministri eletti; Sorge infausta una procella
Serse – Frondi tenere e belle; Ombra mai fu
Ezio – Gia risonar d’interno
Apollo e Dafne – Mie piante, correte
Giulio Cesare in Egitto – Tu sei il cor di questo core
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass-baritone)
Federico Maria Sardelli
Recorded February 2009 in Teatro della Pergola, Saloncino, Florence
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: November 2009
CD No: DG 477 8361
Duration: 59 minutes
For a gifted bass-baritone, acclaimed in Mozart and taking his first steps in the nineteenth-century Italian repertory, to devote his debut solo recital to arias by Handel is a strong indication, if any were needed, of how that composer’s stock has risen (and in a remarkably short time). Furthermore, where most compilations of virtuoso vocal works by this composer have concentrated on the arias originally allocated to star castratos or the warring sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, here attention has been drawn to the neglected bass parts in Handel’s operas, predominantly those composed for minor characters but no less demanding for that.
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo has a handsome voice: the lower register has full sonority and the top never seems over-pushed but maintains a smooth liquidity. His technique passes the tests for range and agility which are so crucial in much of this music.
The main criticism levelled at recital discs is that singers do not differentiate between the various characters whose arias they sing; the recital recording can accentuate uniformity of style and characterisation. This D’Arcangelo largely avoids. He adopts a different vocal quality for each character but without exaggeration. His Zoroastro is authoritative, his Cosroe (“Siroe”) drenched in shame and regret. His Varo (“Ezio”) displays the rotund tone of a confident character, swollen with self-importance.
Three of the bass singers associated with Handel in his London years are recalled in the choice of arias here. Giuseppe Maria Boschi was the chosen bass during the Royal Academy years. Garibaldo in “Rodelinda” is a died-in-the-wool villain, given the music of a bully and lacking any trace of warmth. In “Rinaldo”, Handel’s debut opera in London, Boschi took the role of Argante, Saracen governor of Jerusalem. In ‘Sibilar gl’angui d’Aletto’, Argante’s exhilaration is expressed with pounding rhythms and trumpets and drums to the fore. Achillas’s love song from “Giulio Cesare” is a less inspiring piece. Boscshi must have been gratified after being awarded so many runaway solos to be presented with a slow aria in “Siroe”, and what a gem it is. The king is overwhelmed by guilt: the son he has condemned to death has proved to be innocent. The great rearing leaps of the vocal line embody the stabbing pain of his conscience, while the continuous, relentless steps of the strings’ funeral march hint at his nagging fear of revenge.
Antonio Montagnana, whom Handel cast in the early 1730s, but who was later to join the rival Opera of the Nobility company, seems to have been an even more prodigious singer in his prime. “Orlando” is surely one of the high points of Handel’s operatic canon. Its characterisation is incisive, its musical and dramatic points made with economy of means. D’Arcangelo excels in the Sarastro-like role of Zoroastro which was created by Montagnana. In ‘Lascia amore’ he acts as wise counsellor and evokes the power of reason. In Zoroastro’s invocation in Act Three we get a glimpse of the accompanied recitative which is such a progressive feature of the work, with its evocative lapping string figures. The succeeding aria ‘Sorge infausta’ has formidable passages of coloratura. D’Arcangelo places thrillingly the powerful climbing sequences but I cannot ignore his tendency to aspirate in the passage-work. In those numbers where the lower strings double the voice’s divisions, this tendency is particularly obtrusive. It is a frustrating syndrome in such a well-schooled singer. On the plus side he shows resourcefulness in devising decorations for the da capos and skill in performing them. The rhythmic modifications in the “Rinaldo” aria are particularly striking.
Gustavus Waltz took the rewarding role of the King of Scotland when “Ariodante” inaugurated Handel’s stay at Covent Garden in 1735. Puzzlingly, the King’s aria from the second act precedes that from the first in this compilation. D’Arcangelo brings a noble colour to his tone. Despite the text of ‘Voli colla sua tromba’, Handel plays down the impact of the instrumental sound, while keeping the regal feel by orchestrating it for two horns. The pairing of flute and strings in his last-Act farewell to his daughter provide an exquisite background to the singer’s restrained and stoical approach: there is an impressive unity of purpose here between all the performers. A side-effect of the choice of early and late works is to underline Handel’s growth in subtlety and expressiveness by the closing years of his operatic career.
I would have preferred the third aria for Zoroastro to Serse’s opening apostrophe to the plane tree, which the singer cannot resist appropriating. His first line of recitative is disconcerting, with the word “tenere” reduced to two syllables and “belle” stripped of its appoggiatura. In attempting to establish some character in these few seconds he overdoes the peremptoriness in referring to natural phenomena, banishing the threat of gales with particular belligerence. The aria lacks flow, though the trills are neatly done. Federico Maria Sardelli brings out the colour of the lower strings, though singer and conductor would have done well to heed the words of Winton Dean about the borrowing of this aria: “Its magic evaporates if the voice part is sung in a lower octave.”
Not all the selections are from Handel’s operatic oeuvre. “Apollo e Dafne” is a secular cantata dating from 1710, begun in Italy but completed in Hanover. ‘Mie piante, correte’ has the bustling prelude which was later used for ‘Venti turbini’ in “Rinaldo”. Here there is to my ears a mismatch with the vocal part. The tessitura is that of a high baritone; D’Arcangelo copes with aplomb.
In 1708, with the papal ban on opera in force, Handel made his first attempt at the Acis and Galatea story and this provides the most extraordinary performance on this release, ‘Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori. The voice is here spot-lit above a scanty accompaniment. The singer is required to encompass a range from D to a’ and to span intervals as wide as two octaves. D’Arcangelo approaches the tasks with inevitable signs of strain but hits notes at both ends bang in the middle. Most remarkable I find the slow rising scale from D below the bass clef to C sharp, which he twice delivers with an enthralling crescendo.
The recording is gloriously vivid, with a wide spatial spread. The lower strings of Modo Antiquo can be heard in biting attack, sharing the singer’s energy and dexterity, their passagework crystal-clear. The woodwinds, oboes chattering busily, flutes grieving or wooing the ear, are captured with fidelity. The band joins the profusion of virtuoso baroque ensembles. Sardelli draws sound of varying character from his violins, especially abrasive in the case of the “Agrippina” aria. He brings out all the instrumental invention in the ritornelli, while reining back to give the soloist his head in the vocal passages.
The ordering of the numbers lacks immediately identifiable logic, with arias even for the same character separated. There seems to be a general plan to alternate fast with slow tempos. Nevertheless, few of the great international basses of the past could have conquered the demands of these arias. Of course they were never called on to do so: the works from which they come lay unperformed in nearly every case for over two centuries. Thankfully they are now making up for lost time and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, approaching his prime, joins a growing group of singers able to do them justice.