they do on the Jacobs recording. But Emelyanychev’s direction of his responsive band – fierier than Gardiner’s, less interventionist than Jacobs’s – combines fizzing theatrical energy with due regard for the opera’s more reflective moments. A word, too, for the eloquent first oboe, a crucial player in this opera. With DiDonato nonpareil in the title-role and a uniformly strong cast, this now becomes a first choice for Handel’s Venetian masterpiece. Richard Wigmore
Purcell King Arthur Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson sops Jeremy Budd, James Way tens Roderick Williams bar Ashley Riches bass-bar Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh Winged Lion/Signum M b SIGCD589 (98’ • DDD) Includes synopsis and libretto
Paul McCreesh directs the Gabrieli Consort & Players and an outstanding line-up of singers in Purcell
Gardiner (Philips, 6/97) and René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi, 1/12), both with slightly different texts. This new recording uses the edition by Peter Jones and David Vickers based on what was performed in Venice rather than Handel’s autograph. Inter alia, we get a longer ballet sequence at the end and a touching continuo aria ‘Spera alma mia’ (replacing the flighty ‘Bella pur’) that adds a note of tenderness to Poppea’s character.
As at Covent Garden, DiDonato effortlessly dominates proceedings with her mix of hauteur, sensuous beauty of tone and acute, specific characterisation. Double-speak is her default setting; and even at her most ingratiating, as in her blithe aria to Poppea ‘Non hò cor’, DiDonato never lets you forget that here is one of the most ruthlessly manipulative women in Roman history (and there is plenty of competition). The American mezzo releases her inner Amneris in the magnificent, troubled soliloquy ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’, and finally makes peace with her husband Claudius in a meltingly sung ‘Se vuoi pace’, a ravishing minuet aria that Handel reworked for a revival of Belshazzar nearly half a century later.
As Agrippina’s rival in manipulation, the French soprano Elsa Benoit is a delectable Poppea, both knowing and sympathetic.
She luxuriates in her physical allure in ‘Vaghe perle’, and wraps Nero around her little finger in the bouncy gigue ‘Col peso’. In sexual charisma Benoit’s Poppea eclipses both Donna Brown, for Gardiner, and Jacobs’s pallid Sunhae Im. At Covent Garden Franco Fagioli played Nero as a tattooed teenaged psychopath. Tattoos apart, the future emperor certainly comes across as neurotically unstable in Fagioli’s over-the-top performance. Though his tone can be plummy and his words indistinct, he dispatches his two showpieces in Act 3 with his trademark devil-may-care bravado. As Nero’s temperamental opposite Otho, Jakub Józef Orlin´ski sings with rounded tone and a sure feeling for Handelian line, whether in his hushed, inward account of the great lament ‘Voi che udite’ or in the exquisite ‘Vaghe fonte’, with its gently purling recorders.
Luca Pisaroni uses the subterranean depths of his bass to good effect as the faintly absurd Emperor Claudius, though he sounds too lugubrious in his love song to Poppea ‘Vieni o cara’ – one of the opera’s loveliest tunes. Carlo Vistoli and the teak-voiced bass Andrea Mastroni make their mark as the hopelessly besotted double act of Pallante and Narciso. At times I felt that the recitatives could move at a more natural conversational pace, as
The Gabrieli Consort & Players have been developing ideas about King Arthur (or
The British Worthy) for nearly a quarter of a century. Winged Lion’s book is illustrated cleverly with photography of quintessentially English landscapes and scenes related to themes in Dryden’s words (Cornish tin mines, Stonehenge, North Sea fishermen, cricket on the village green, Morris dancing and a Yorkshire flock of sheep). Numerous writings immerse the reader in the latest Purcell scholarship on the origins of the opera, critical thinking that has informed the new bespoke performing edition by Christopher Suckling and Paul McCreesh, while an admirably clear synopsis explains how Purcell’s masques and songs fitted into the play, and six musicians provide insights into their research-informed approaches to performing Purcell’s music afresh.
The problematic sources of the music (none of which are autographs) have been reappraised thoroughly. The duet ‘You say, ’tis Love’ is considered incongruous in its customary position in Act 5 just before the patriotic masque, so it is relocated to the end of Act 4 after the passacaglia ‘How happy the lover’. The usual final song and chorus in praise of St George is not in 17th-century sources and unlikely to be authentic Purcell, so it is replaced by an adaptation of superior music from Dioclesian (‘Sound Heroes, your brazen trumpets sound’, Jeremy Budd’s high tenor in dialogue with high-wire solo trumpet). I regret the omission of a few short internal
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36 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2020