A recording to cherish
Michael K. Halloran | 05/14/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The operas of Handel are surely an acquired taste, the opera seria format seeming stiff and contrived to modern listeners. But if you develop an apetite for them, you may just find yourself becoming addicted. This new recording of "Alcina" could be just the ticket to start newcomers on the road toward falling in love with Handelian opera.This is not the first complete recording of "Alcina." Two others, with Joan Sutherland and Arleen Auger in the title role, exist but are currently unavailable in the United States. However, this recording excels in making the characters human, the situations moving and valid, and the emotions palpable. The first glory of the set is undoubtedly the singing of Renee Fleming in the title role. Her voice improves on her recorded predecessors by not only being exceptionally beautiful but irresistably sensuous as well. Her singing of Handel is a revelation, when her first aria is launched with a voice of fullness, warmth and creamy tone. This is no standard "period" soprano a la Emma Kirkby, but a real woman: Fleming believes in this character and her emotions, and makes her sympathetic to us. Her complete dramatic involvement make Alcina a living, breathing being, rather than a posturing cardboard nightingale.Susan Graham is equally effective as Ruggiero, her voice as warm and beautiful as Fleming's. She may lack the full dramatic commitment to the character that Fleming has, but then Ruggiero is not as developed as Alcina. She does, however, contribute an exquisitely shaded and nuanced version of "Verdi prati."Natalie Dessay's frequent excursions into the altissimo range may bother some purists (she caps "Tornami a vagheggiar" with a high F), but for my money her embellishments are right on for the flighty character of Morgana. Her voice remains sweet, clear, and slightly reedy, contrasting well with the other sopranos in the cast.The rest of the cast is good, if without the degree of commitment and polish exhibited by the three leading ladies. Kathleen Kuhlmann repeats her Bradamante from the Auger set, sounding firm if rather unyielding in tone and with aspirated coloratura. Juanita Lascarro is light and pure as the child Oberto, although it would have been nice to have a boy soprano sing the part, as it was done in Handel's time. The men are also good, if unexceptionable. The chorus sings well but is difficult to understand.William Christie shapes the performance beautifully; this may be his best work to date. Les Arts Florissants plays with energy and crisp ensemble, embellishing the da capos right along with the singers.For those wary of live recordings, fear not. A few odd sonic balances aside, the sound is excellent, arias better than the recitatives. Applause comes at the end of each act, so the flow remains uniterrupted within the piece.I wouldn't want to be without the two earlier recordings of "Alcina," but for an experience that makes the work vital and exciting, as well as a near-perfect reading of the title role by Renee Fleming, give this set a try."
Memorable night at the Palais Garnier
J. Luis Juarez Echenique | Mexico City | 04/25/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After giving us choice recordings of Handel' s Messiah, Orlando and Acis and Galatea, William Christie now turns his attention to Alcina, one of Handel's very best operas. For this great occasion he got some of the most famous divas of our time and it pays off handsomely. It really doesn't matter if Renee Fleming sounds more like a Strauss soprano, her ravishing voice is equally seductive in Handel, and she does give a great performance in the title role. Susan Graham is almost as good, even if she can't compare (no one can) with the young Teresa Berganza in the old Bonynge recording. Natalie Dessay sparks fireworks in her sensational coloratura aria "Tornami a vagheggiar" at the end of Act I. It seems she got the biggest applause of the evening. But it is the exquisite playing of Les Arts Florissants which deserves the highest praise. This is certainly one of the greatest opera recordings of the year."
Stars shine in Handelian Firmament
Ed Beveridge | London, England | 06/24/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This recording was always going to be a bestseller - the unfeasibly starry casting would see to that - and it really lives up to its billing. Alcina has wonderful arias in spades but it takes real musical imagination to bring them to life as William Christie and his soloists do here. Yes, he pushes the ritenuti to the limit, and yes, the ornamentation occasionaly lapses beyond the strictly tasteful. But how well the performance captures the themes of the opera: the brittle decadence of Alcina's court - and the misery and loneliness at the centre of it all. The frisson of a live performance adds to the excitement - and I am sure the applause went on for much longer than it did here. The orchestral sound is agreeably robust but bright and accurate. There are some smashing obbligati. The cast is, rightly, dominated by the eponymous sorceress. Renee Fleming thwarts all those who question her ability as a Handel singer (and there are enough of them) by bringing her rich, bright soprano, her flawless dynamic control, her deeply satisfying musicality and an edge of bravura to her music. Bravura is not the word for Natalie Dessay's dazzling Morgana, agreeably plush of tone, really thoughfully characterised and - of course - breathtakingly saucy in altissimo. Susan Graham sings gloriously too (with some occasional tuning problems) but perhaps her Ruggiero could go further in terms of character - Alcina is not the only one soul-searching in this piece. As for the rest, only praise, especially for Kathleen Kuhlmann's artless execution of her florid music and Juanita Lascarro's characterful Oberto. So - well worth having - unless you are the kind of handel lover who can't bear non-authentic Handelian singers. It's an intoxicating record of some memorable music theatre and a real treat."