This time of year, I imagine more people are studying the music of Handel's Messiah than are listening to the 2009 remastered recordings of The Beatles. I sure am. I'm getting ready for one of the great musical treats of my life -- singing 18th century music under the direction of Nicholas McGegan. He's leading the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus in Messiah on December 11-12-13. Hot Diggety Dog is all I can say about that!
I’m completing a year of listening to 5-star recordings of Handel operas. I play them on my car stereo during many long drives through Missouri. I also play them during short drives. I play them in drives of all lengths and never use the radio.
One might think that all these arias, overtures, and tempests would be indistinguishable after a month or so. They are no more indistinguishable than 500 grandchildren would be to the doting grandparent. Each one bears the stamp of creative spark. Even the ones that have been borrowed from another opera and reworked slightly delight me none the less.
What enchants me is the play of three imaginations – Handel’s, the conductor’s, and the singer’s. Most of the pieces in Handel’s opera were written as vehicles for international stars. He had to write music that would show off the distinctive gifts of each star in his opera company. Handel’s audience, too, expected ever-new productions with ever-new music to show off some of the best singers in Europe.
Modern conductors approach Handel as a master of theatrical and dramatic effects. They sense the way that a dramatic impression can be rendered through a manner of increasing the energy of the bow on the violin or cello. They imagine themselves as Handel himself, urging his orchestra to play one aria in a different character from another, to suit the dramatic moment more closely than the musical notation by itself could indicate.
I am replaying a 2008 recording of Riccardo Primo in my car and on my office computer because I realized that it will be impossible to make a “highlights” playlist of this opera for Kathy. Almost every aria is a highlight. Paul Goodwin conducts the Kammerorchester Basel. The countertenor, Lawrence Zazzo, sings the role of Richard, the Lion-Hearted. Soprano Nuria Rial sings the part of his fiancé, Costanza. Soprano Geraldine McGreevy sings Pulcheria, daughter of the Cyprian ruler, Isacio.
It’s too bad that you can’t buy MP3 samples of this opera from iTunes or Amazon. Some of it has been posted on YouTube, though, and you can listen to a few samples of what modern Handel performances sound like.
Here is Riccardo’s Act I aria about his stormy shipwreck on Cyprus, “Agitato da fiere tempeste.”
That gives you a good idea of what expert "divisions" sound like nowadays. The same artist conjures with gorgeous tone in Riccardo’s Act II aria, “Nube che il sole adombra.”
Just a few minutes later, Riccardo and Costanza sing a ten-minute duet that makes time, and Act II, come to a stop. Here’s a performance of “T’amo, si” from a 1996 recording of the opera, with Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo:
Here’s the Catalan soprano, Nuria Rial (Costanza), celebrating her good fate in the Act III aria, “Il volo cosi fido” from the 2008 Paul Goodman recording.
It’s nice to see the actual singer after all these pseudo-videos, so here is Lawrence Zazza singing Coronato il crin d'alloro from a 2004 Paris production of Aggripina Ottone.
And here is Nuria Rial, singing Belinda’s first song from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.