A florid 'Floridante'
by Tim Pfaff
By now, we're so far beyond having to plead the case for Handel's operas — if you don't appreciate their musical and dramatic qualities but subscribe to any of the world's major opera companies, poor you! — that the marketers' sensationalized flacking of them can seem as quaint as it is cringe-inducing. The only thing that made me wince about Alan Curtis' otherwise exemplary new recording of his reconstruction of the original version of Floridante (Archiv) is the booklet's synopsis of the opera's already sufficiently twisted plot.
"Sex, violence, lust, incest, jealousy and betrayal" begins its heavy-breathing opening sentence, which pushes the truth-in-advertising envelope as egregiously as the three-disc set's come-hither cover. It reminded me of the pull-quote blandishing the paperback of James Michener's Hawaii ("Love, violence, sex, sin — a vast saga of the islands") I sneaked home in a brown-paper bag as a teenager.
There's no end of betrayal, but save yourself the gutter-trawl for the other titillations. At least you won't find them in Paolo Antonio Rolli's libretto, Handel's score or any staging of the opera you're likely to find this side of the Atlantic.
It's almost begging a backlash. Even the staunchest advocates of Handel's operas were startled when, during the more-than-likely-gay composer's tercentenary, in 1985, all of his 40-some operas were performed somewhere in the world. A lead article in the music section of London's Guardian Limited, groaning about the seven Handel operas that have surfaced in Britain within four months, asked whether we will have been over-Handeled by the tercentenary of his death two years from now.
If the whole enterprise backfires, don't blame Curtis. It was his 1978 recording of Admeto (made when the now-out early-music specialist was on the UC Berkeley music faculty) that startled the mainstream critical horses into realizing that Handel operas were more than Wagner-length compilations of pretty airs. He's been at it ever since, and usually at his best when, as here, he's trying to get at the composer's original intentions in scores with complicated histories, and gets to fiddle with them himself.
Handel himself conducted four different versions of Floridante, but Curtis' interest here is in what the composer had in mind with the first one, for the 1721-22 season of the Royal Academy of Music. A singer cancellation midway through his work on the opera caused him to put aside composition until he could reconcile the piece with the cast at hand. He may never have, at least to his satisfaction.
Curtis, who previously made a ground-breaking recording of Floridante excerpts, makes a convincing argument that this new version is closer to what Handel wanted than anything the composer ever heard. The details are in the otherwise sane accompanying material.
What Curtis' sage, shapely and astutely dramatic performance gets right is Handel's deep absorption in the character of Elmira, daughter of the king of Persia who is snatched from her father by the loathsome usurper Oronte, who first makes her his own "daughter," and then, after disclosing her true parentage, tries to marry her (the putative "incest") despite his knowledge of her deep love for Floridante, Prince of Thrace.
Curtis is aided by the psychologically penetrating performance of Joyce DiDonato, among the best Handel singers of our day. She's got the chops to sing "Oh what a surprise" (in Italian, of course) when Oronte gives her the dual news — and make it count. Throughout the long, demanding role, she never, as the Brits say, puts a foot wrong, and her lustrous mezzo doesn't miss a single dramatic nuance. There are echoes of Callas in the aria that follows, "Barbaro, t'odio a morte" ("I hate you to death"), and she sings a transfixing scene that upends the Baroque sleep aria convention by making it an insomnia-accompanied recitative.
Handel's music leaves no doubt that she is more courageous than her warrior lover. In the title role, mezzo profundo Marijana Mijanovic gets off some low notes that give you an idea of what a castrato might have sounded like, but her more monochrome, unsteady singing, which comes perilously close to aspirating the coloratura in the arias, has less conviction.
The other singer to approach DiDonato's level is Roberta Invernizzi, who sings the pants off the light trouser-role of Timante. The best thing to be said about Vito Priante's wooly bass-baritone is that it makes his Oronte the more odious.
Curtis' instrumental ensemble, Il Complesso Barocco, headed by the Bay Area's Elizabeth Blumenstock, has never sounded better or more dramatically incisive. This could easily turn out to be the Handel recording of the year, but of course it's far too early to tell.