Apollo e Dafne; Armida abbandonata
Kathryn Lewek (soprano), John Chest (baritone); Il Pomo d’Oro/Francesco Corti
Pentatone PTC 5186 965 72:27 mins
Having led Handel’s Messiah, Orlando and Ariodante onstage, soprano Kathryn Lewek here turns to Handel cantatas. Her selection is shrewd: Armida abbandonata and Apollo e Dafne both channel technical, affective and dramatic prima donna power. Lewek wields this power majestically.
Armida and Dafne are opposite characters. Abandoned by her lover, the sorceress Armida is bereft; dismissive of men, the nymph Dafne flees Apollo’s advances and delights in her freedom. Handel fit his melodies to their very different dramas, giving Armida tearful laments and brooding arioso, while Dafne gets radiant simplicity and defiant sprightliness. Lewek builds on these distinctions in how she modulates her instrument and elaborates her melodies. Her Armida commands vocal muscle and jagged cadenzas, while her Dafne is all limpid purity sprinkled with agréments. The effect is spellbinding.
Il Pomo d’Oro do their own shape-shifting, in obbligato lines especially. Instrumental soloists sparkle in their exchanges with Lewek. The band often changes the mood, as when the entry of Apollo turns the day from sunny to menacing. The programme includes an instrumental ‘suite’ – in fact, dances pieced together – from Handel’s first opera, Almira (1705). The players delightfully enrich its tunes, not least the sarabande that Handel later used in Rinaldo for ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’.
Baritone John Chest is a bit miscast in this project. An opera star, he sings gorgeously but wants poetry. Director Francesco Corti’s tempo is too fast for Apollo’s chase of Daphne (‘Mie piante correte’), denying this music the space its richness requires. Elsewhere in this recording, however, the artistry on display is stunning.