Emöke Barath, Amanda Forsythe, Colin Balzer (voices); Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra/Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs
CPO 555 205-2 241.55 mins (4 discs)
Almira, premiered to acclaim in Hamburg in 1705, was Handel’s first opera. It was in many ways typical of opera in Hamburg at that time, with recitatives in rhymed German verse and its score mingling Venetian, German and French styles. Its labyrinthine libretto deals with a standard 17th-century trope – the Queen falls in love with a commoner, who after many twists and turns of the plot turns out to be a nobleman after all. Handel had not yet found his operatic voice – one listens in vain for an aria with knock-out beauty – but there are plenty of hints of the great things to come, and the dance music contains trial runs for two of his most-loved melodies, ‘Pena tiranna’ in Amadigi, and ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo, so in this respect alone it’s worth a revival.
And the performances on this recording are outstanding: theorbo players Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs share the musical direction, and dances and obbligato accompaniments are a delight with no weak link among the singers. Soprano Emöke Barath brings an imperious fullness of tone to the title role, while the singing of Colin Balzer as her paramour Fernando is full of character. The parallel coupling of Edilia and Osman is beautifully rendered thanks to soprano Amanda Forsythe’s girlish sweetness and to the lyrical grace of tenor Zachary Wilder’s coloratura. Teresa Wakim’s Bellante sounds suitably kittenish, baritonal ballast is provided by Christian Immler’s Consalvo and light relief breaks out thanks to Jan Kobow’s Papageno-like Tabarco. Michael Church