Handel: Alcina

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Alcina
PERFORMER: Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Natalie Dessay, Kathleen Kuhlmann, Timothy Robinson, Laurent Naouri; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-80233-2
There have been only two recordings of Alcina, Handel’s 30th Italian opera: Richard Bonynge’s with Sutherland, Berganza and Sciutti (1962, Decca) and Richard Hickox’s Eighties production with Arleen Auger, Della Jones and Eiddwen Harrhy (on EMI). Auger and Della Jones give warmly engaging and spacious readings. In the older recording, Berganza is a strong Ruggiero, Sutherland by turns spectacular and vague. In his 1999 Paris Opera production, Christie defied expectations by choosing a non-Baroque specialist cast, with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Natalie Dessay and Juanita Lascarro – all better known for their Strauss, Berlioz, Offenbach and beyond. But he has worked his magic: this is a very French, highly decorated creation which fairly glistens with thoroughbred talent.

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Occasionally, the melodic lines become choked or twisted by the da capo ornamentation: Kathleen Kuhlmann struggles to keep up in her revenge aria, while Lascarro can sound mannered. Dessay is fresh and tart as Morgana, though she becomes uneven in the more heartfelt arias.

Susan Graham takes on the challenging castrato role of Ruggiero, and invests it with intense introspection. She is a touch flaccid in the lament ‘Verdi prati’, but her heart-searching ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ (My tender passion bewitches me), is powerfully controlled, and she reaches a peak in the heroic ‘love triumphs’ aria. The heart of the opera is Alcina’s passionate aria of defeat, ‘Ah! mio cor!’. Fleming plays this scene with sobbing breaths, and much colouring of the voice. One forgives her tendency towards melodrama, when the doomed enchantress’s tragedy is made so human. Beside her, Sutherland sounds pure but disembodied. Nevertheless, the older recording can seem direct and unaffected beside Christie’s intensively worked-over reading.

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The recording is immediate, combining the sense of stage performance with face-to-face intimacy. Its underlying glory is, of course, Les Arts Florissants: no previous band has been capable of such pungent, exacting vitality, nor such a range of rich hues and textures.