João Fernandes, Bruno de Sá, Helena Rasker, Liliya Gaysina, Roberta Mameli, Roberta Invernizzi, Maria Ladurner (voices); Ensemble 1700/Dorothee Oberlinger
DHM 19439743802 94:44 mins (2 discs)
Giovanni Bononcini’s Polifemo is much more than the ‘bagatelle’ described by one critic. Written for the Prussian court of Queen Sophia Charlotte in 1704, 15 years before the Italian composer was coaxed to London (where for a time he became a serious popular rival to Handel), this first recording in Italian from Dorothee Oberlinger’s admirable Ensemble 1700 reveals a one-act Baroque gem.
True, Attilio Ariosti’s libretto is a tad inconsequential, with the Cyclops Polifemo who lends his name to the work less present than the two pairs of lovers, Aci and Galatea and Glauco and Silla; while at the end Venus turns out to be a pretty tame dea ex machina. But Circe’s revenge aria took Europe by storm and was deftly borrowed by Handel. Bononcini knew his music theatre craft, so the headstrong Silla, who is dead set against marrying Glauco, is accompanied by rasping oboes, while her besotted lover sings his heart out to the accompaniment of flutes.
Oberlinger is well served by a committed ensemble of singers, notably the Dutch contralto Helena Rasker who as Glauco has the kind of chest register that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. Soprano Roberta Mameli’s Silla is a pert little madam, and countertenor (or male soprano) Bruno de Sá a handsome Aci who in his duet with Galatea (soprano Roberta Invernizzi) twists her musically round his and her little fingers with a sinuous legato.
João Fernandes as Polifemo makes the most of his comic turn in a kind of patter aria when he counts his livestock. But the end belongs to the lovers which is exactly as it should be in a Baroque opera.