Handel: Deidamia

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Virgin Veritas
WORKS: Deidamia
PERFORMER: Simone Kermes, Anna Bonitatibus, Dominique Labelle, Furio Zanasi, Anna Maria Panzarella, Antonio Abete; Il Complesso Barocco & Chorus/Alan Curtis
CATALOGUE NO: 5 45550 2
By 1740 the London aristocracy’s appetite for Italian opera had waned. And the total failure of Deidamia helped to convince Handel once and for all that his future lay with English oratorio and ode. Even the normally ardent Handelian Dr Charles Burney dismissed Deidamia as ‘languid and antique’; and while the work has had its takers, it still remains among the least favoured in the Handel canon.

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Like other late Handel operas, Deidamia takes an ironic view of its Classical story, centring on the young Achilles’s disguise as a girl to avert his fate in the Trojan War, his secret liaison with Princess Deidamia, and his unmasking by the wily Ulysses. There are several opportunities for comedy, as in the scene where Achilles gives himself away by his excessive enthusiasm for swords and helmets. The trouble is that Handel too often seems disengaged. Most of the numbers are pleasant enough. But as one light, tripping aria succeeds another, usually in a major key, often in triple time, there is too little sense of the music defining and enhancing the characters. And you wait in vain for one of the composer’s transfiguring melodies. Still, several numbers stand out, including a song of drowsy contentment for Deidamia’s father Lycomedes and two moving scenes where the once naive Princess rises to tragic pathos.

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Though Deidamia may have limited appeal beyond the Handel faithful, I’m glad to have heard it in such a fine performance – on the whole livelier and better sung than the recent version from Rudolph Palmer (Albany). Alan Curtis paces the opera crisply and secures some beautifully delicate, airy playing from his expert period band. With light, nimble voices and a real feeling for Handelian style (the odd moment of over-exuberant ornamentation apart), the soloists characterise as vividly as their arias allow, and make much of their exchanges in the recitatives. As Deidamia, Simone Kermes catches the rapt innocence of the earlier numbers and finds a new intensity of tone for her tragic arias in Acts II and III. Dominique Labelle is nicely coquettish as the confidante Nerea, Anna Bonitatibus excels especially in Ulysses’s aria of feigned passion for ‘Pyrra’ (Achilles in disguise), while Anna Maria Panzarella makes an appealingly coltish, ingenuous Achilles.