GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2018
Act 3 lament ‘Dove sei?’ with intense beauty of line and tone, always responsive to the text, and throws off his bravura arias with unforced brilliance. As the patiently suffering (even by Baroque opera standards) heroine, the American soprano Lauren Snouffer has a warmer, richer voice than either of her CD rivals and a nimble coloratura technique. With a mezzo glint in her tone, she catches well the passionate undercurrents of Teofane’s music, whether in ‘Falsa imagine’, her yearning plea for peace ‘Affanni dei pensier’ or the nocturnal garden scena in Act 3. Some may find her quick vibrato slightly disconcerting in Handel, though I soon got used to it.
Gismonda’s inconsistently drawn character, veering between ruthless ambition and blithe exuberance, is softened by the lulling ‘Vieni, o figlio’, an exquisite outpouring of maternal love. Ann Hallenberg, always a superb Handelian, sings this with musing inwardness, using delicate ornamentation to enhance the intensity of the da capo. Elsewhere she musters all the imperiousness and, in the splenetic ‘Trema, tiranno’, venom that the matriarch’s music demands. In the role of Matilda, in love with the contemptible Adelberto in spite of herself, mezzo Anna Starushkevych sings with sensitivity and (in her fiery denunciation of Ottone) plenty of temperament, though her coloratura can be bumpy. Xavier Sabata, as Adelberto, is mellifluous in his quieter, lyrical music but tends to hoot when spitting out defiance in ‘Tu puoi straziarmi’. Eschewing mere bluster, bass-baritone Pavel Kudinov sings with fine, clean resonance and impressive agility – a hint of tenderness, too, in his final aria – as the jolly pirate Emireno, who eventually turns out to be Teofane’s brother in disguise (don’t question the maths – this is opera seria).
Despite minor provisos, this new recording is emphatically the version to have of an opera whose dramatic flaws are redeemed by magnificent individual scenes and any number of good tunes. It is also more complete than its rivals, including, as David Vickers explains in an informative note, all the music heard at the 1723 premiere plus two new arias added for Cuzzoni’s benefit night later that season and, as an appendix, three numbers Handel composed for Senesino when he revived Ottone in 1726. Richard Wigmore (9/17)
Lully Alceste Judith Van Wanroij sop �Alceste/La Gloire Edwin Crossley-Mercer bass-bar �Alcide
Emiliano Gonzalez Toro ten �Admète/Second Triton Ambroisine Bré mez � �Céphise/Nymph of the Tuileries/Proserpine Douglas Williams bass-bar �Lycomède/Charon Étienne Bazola bar � Cléante/Straton/Pluton/Éole Bénédicte Tauran sop � �Nymph of the Marne/Thétis/Diane Lucía Martín Cartón sop � �Nymph of the Seine/Afflicted Woman/Ghost Enguerrand de Hys ten � �First Triton/Follower of Pluton Namur Chamber Choir; Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset Aparté M b AP164 (151’ • DDD) Includes synopsis, libretto and translation
‘Next to Euripides or Gluck, Lully’s Alceste is a joke’, was Joseph Kerman’s withering verdict in Opera as Drama (Knopf: 1956). Lully’s enemies – and he had many – mounted a concerted attack on the opera after its 1674 Paris premiere, ridiculing its mix of tragic and comic genres. The great Racine derided librettist Quinault’s casual, pick-and-mix attitude to Euripides. But to no avail: Lully’s second tragédie en musique was an immediate success with Louis XIV and his court, and long remained a staple of the Paris Opéra. The king doubtless lapped up the Prologue, beginning as a toe-curlingly sycophantic tribute to Louis-as-military hero and ending with a divertissement that celebrates the hedonism of the Versailles court. No one could deny that the tragic force of the original is diluted and diffused by ballet, spectacle and a comic sub-plot – though even Kerman praises the scene of mourning for Alceste in Act 3. The characters’ appalling dilemmas are barely explored. But to Lully’s numerous admirers this was beside the point. What the king and his retinue expected, and got in spades, was a familiar Classical story as a pretext for sybaritic entertainment.
I wouldn’t rank Alceste as highly as Atys or – Lully’s masterpiece – Armide. The little triple-time solos that grow out of the stylised recitative tend to have a wan, predictable charm; and Lully’s harmonic imagination is more constricted than in the best of his later operas. But there is plenty to savour, whether in the many instrumental numbers, plaintive, amorous or bellicose, the delightful comic scene in Act 4 for the mercenary Charon, happy to fleece even the dead, or – the emotional heart of the opera –
the poignant pompe funèbre for Alceste in Act 3, culminating in a choral chaconne that sounds distinctly Purcellian to British ears.
Until now Alceste has been decently served by the live recording from JeanClaude Malgoire (Disques Montaigne, 4/93). But this new version, recorded in the Salle Gaveau, Paris, after performances at the Beaune Festival, eclipses it in polish, theatrical verve, casting and sound quality. Few if any conductors match Christophe Rousset’s understanding of Lullian style and rhetoric; and few could complain that he tweaks the sparse orchestration here and there when the effect is so theatrically vivid. His pacing and inflecting of the music seems unerring, not least in his graceful shaping of cadences and his sensitivity to the vein of pastoral nostalgia in the final divertissement (Malgoire and his forces sound altogether blunter here). Chorus and orchestra, so well versed in the idiom, are invariably vital, and Rousset draws compelling performances from his singers, all of whom sound at ease in the tricky-tomaster art of natural French declamation. Even among the non-Francophone singers, diction throughout is a model of clarity and point.
In the title-role Judith Van Wanroij, with a touch of metal in her limpid tone, seems ideally cast, bringing a mingled intensity and delicacy of inflection to her moving laments in Acts 2 and 3. Equally good are the plangent and agile high tenor – almost an haute-contre – of Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as her husband Admète, and the sturdy, no-nonsense bass of Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Alcide (aka Hercules), a man without a scintilla of self-doubt who muscles his way into the Underworld, yet finally abandons his designs on Alceste to ensure a happy ending (Louis XIV doubtless saw his own image here).
Étienne Bazola’s light baritone is better suited to the wind god Éole than to the subterranean pronouncements of Pluton. But Douglas Williams is splendidly incisive as Alceste’s abductor Lycomède, and, abetted by Rousset, relishes his comic turn as Charon; and Ambroisine Bré brings vocal charm and guile – a touching pathos, too, in the scene of mourning – to the role of Alceste’s flirtatious confidante Céphise, whose amoral, carpe diem philosophy (‘marriage is the death of love’) chimed perfectly with that of the Versailles court. More than Rameau’s, Lully’s heavily stylised tragédies en musique are likely to remain
30 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2018
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