Handel: La Lucrezia; theodora (excerpts); Xerxes (excerpts)

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WORKS: La Lucrezia; theodora (excerpts); Xerxes (excerpts)
PERFORMER: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; OAE/Harry Bicket
Handel aficionados have long protested, rightly, that his dramatic music is far more than a mere concert of arias. In opera, his stage sense was profound; in cantata and oratorio, he constantly visualised a theatre of the mind – Theodora includes an absent-minded stage direction. Yet this disc, essentially a concert, works magnificently, partly thanks to a truly outstanding voice but also to repertoire ranging from contralto to soprano via high castrato, from the passion of an enraged Xerxes to the unswerving calm of Irene, Theodora’s confidante. The libretto paints Irene as a pallid figure, too good to be true. Yet Handel gave her five heartfelt arias ranging from the utter simplicity of her welcoming the dawn, to the violence of earthquake and thunder in ‘Defend her, Heav’n’. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sings them with consummate artistry, full of expressive nuance yet with effortless spaciousness and breadth of line. Her range of colour is astonishing: dark in Irene’s resigned elegy ‘New scenes of Joy’; brimming with breathtaking virtuosity in Xerxes’s jilted rage; mercurial in the grand scena of La Lucrezia as Handel abandons the conventional unities to express the intensity of Lucretia’s anguish. Recorded sound, in two different venues, is excellent, as is the supporting orchestral and continuo detail. An exceptional disc. George Pratt