Alessandro

1 – Sophie Boulin (Rossane), Isabelle Poulenard (Lisaura), René Jacobs (Alessandro), Jean Nirouët (Tassile), Ria Bollen (Cleone), Guy de Mey (Leonato), Stephen Varcoe (Clito), La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken

2 – Julia Lezhneva (Rossane), Karina Gauvin (Lisaura), Max Emanuel Cencic (Alessandro), Xavier Sabata (Tassile), Vasily Khoroshev (Cleone),  Juan Sancho (Leonato), In-Sung Sim (Clito), The City of Athens Choir, Armonia Atenea, George Petrou

3 – Yetzabel Arias Fernández (Rossane), Raffaella Milanesi (Lisaura), Lawrence Zazzo (Alessandro), Martin Oro (Tassile), Rebecca Raffell (Cleone), Sebastian Kohlkepp (Leonato), Andrew Finden (Clito), Deutsche Händel-Solisten, Michael Form

Forget about Callas/Tebaldi… Let’s talk about the two rival divas, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. By the time Handel was in the Royal Academy of Music, Cuzzoni used to be the absolute diva, shining along the primo uomo, the castrato Senesino. Everything was going fine for her -  she was also richly paid -  until the Academy decided to hire Bordoni in 1725. It wouldn’t have been really bad if they didn’t have to sing in the same opera. But that happened – quite often! Handel himself wrote five operas for them and Alessandro was the first of them. Every care was taken so that they got the same number of arias, among many other details. It would be in an opera by Bononcini until they finally decide to exchange blows… There is a description of their talents by Quantz: He praises Cuzzoni’s bright, charming voice up to high c and naturalness, but says she did not have the best of coloraturas and was not particularly convincing in her acting. On the other hand, Bordoni was rather mezzo soprano-like in range and colour, very skilled in passagework, gave real importance to the text and was a good actress. In the première of Alessandro, Cuzzoni was Lisaura and Bordoni was Rossane. Senesino, the famous castrato, took the title role

Of course that, with all the sensation caused by the casting of both flashing leading divas of their generation, the first run was a great success, but it was soon forgotten and it is rarely performed today. Even if the libretto is quite silly, Alessandro ranks among the best operas by Handel. The orchestral numbers are delightful, the arias are contrasted and melodically inspired and there are some expressive recitatives. There is even a beautiful duet for the sopranos.

Sigiswald Kuijken’s 1984 recording remained for long the only item in the discography and easily resists the competition from newer additions to the discography. The Belgian conductor is an exemplary Handelian who produces the right atmosphere for each number, both showing this score at its most seductive and giving his cast leeway to interact in true theatrical spirit. Alessandro has its heroic moments, but the mood would rather be described as semiserio, the almost vaudevillian romantic misunderstandings between the leading roles taking pride of place in the plot. Kuijken is the only conductor here able to relax, let the music speak for itself without ever being bland. His orchestra, La Petite Bande, produces beautiful and natural sounds throughout, suggesting excitement AND elegance, without indulging in the kind of harsh sonorities that some consider “characterful”. The lovely Sophie Boulin takes Bordoni’s role, singing with unfailing musicianship and femininity. She offers here both solid technique and outstanding ability to convey the meaning of the text. In Cuzzoni’s role, Isabelle Poulenard is also very characterful, brilliant in coloratura and completely at ease in the high tessitura, even if her voice might acquire a slightly acidulous quality up there. As Alessandro, René Jacobs could be counted as the weak link in this recording – his Italian is artificial, his voice is metallic, legato is not his best friend and he sounds affected throughout. But he sounds “different”, and this is an undeniable asset in a castrato role. Moreover, he shows some sense of humor. Jean Nirouët is beautifully contrasted in the part of Tassile – his countertenor is very mellifluous and he sings with poise and charm. Guy de Mey sounds a bit unconcerned and utterly unheroic, but he is more at ease with what he has to sing than the competition. Stephen Varcoe (Clito) lacks depth and color; he too is more uncomplicated than the other singers in this discography. Cleone is a small part, but it deserved a more accomplished alto than the one featured here. The recorded sound is excellent.

George Petrou and the Armonia Atenea, in their first opera recording for Decca, offer an all-star cast and a serious intent to prove that Alessandro is everything but boring. The problem is – this work has never been boring in the first place and the hyperventilating approach rather robs than adds to its charms. There is no lack of talent here – the orchestra fizzes fabulously in breathtaking tempi and some earthy sounds, the singers are top-notch and cope amazingly with the high-octane conducting, but the impression is rather formidable than delightful and one would easily believe that these characters are making war rather than love to each other. When the mood is indeed frantic, the results are, of course, truly impressive. Julia Lezhneva is a rather wooden Rossane, but her technical finish, even in the most florid passages, is sensational. Karina Gauvin’s creamy soprano is a treat to the ears. She sings with unending grace if little variety. The part is a bit high for her voice too and she can sound a bit mature and less fluent than Isabelle Poulenard (Kuijken) in the more athletic numbers. Max Emanuel Cencic is the best Alessandro in the discography – his voice if firm, pleasant and extremely flexible The sound itself is a bit soft-centered and occasionally too “feminine” for this role, but other than that, this is very exciting Handelian singing. Everybody knows that a countertenor sings falsetto, but some countertenors – such as Xavier Sabata – makes one particularly aware of that. Yet he sings with animation and a good sense of line and in the end, one tends to be appreciative. Juan Sancho has more presence than Guy de Mey as Leonato if less poise, especially in his higher range. In-Sung Sim too is more substantial than Kuijken’s Stephen Varcoe, but heavily aspirates his divisions.

Michael Form’s is a live recording made in the Badische Staatstheater Karlsruhe, and this makes it immediately less competitive in terms of polish (especially the recorded sound). The Deutsche Händel-Solisten, as recorded here, have a not really seductive and very abrasive sound. Also, the cast is also less at ease and often requires more considerate tempi from their conductor. From some point on one is rather waiting for the next misfiring rather than enjoying the experience. Yetzabel Arias Fernández (Rossane) has a charming, fruity voice and sings affectingly. In these circumstances, her performance, however, never takes flight. In any case, she is the best singer here – particularly superior to the unfocused and grainy-toned Raffaella Milanesi, miscast in the role of Lisaura.  Although Delphine Galou showed in Halle in 2010 that a contralto can be particularly effective, here we find another countertenor in the title role. Having to cope with the demands of the stage action, Lawrence Zazzo’s singing is not really smooth, if more spontaneous than René Jacobs (Kuijken): he is cautious around the break, less faithful in pitch and in note values in his runs and sometimes a bit ungainly. His Tassile, Martin Oro, could be described with the same words used for Xavier Sabata, but – recorded live – he is noticeably more perfectible. Sebastian Kohlhepp (Leonato) is maybe not entirely at home in Handel, but his tenor has an interesting heroic quality. As Clito, Andrew Finden is basically rough-toned. In the breeches-role of Cleone, Rebecca Raffell sounds almost exactly like a countertenor.  As in many staged performances, the edition performed in Karlsruhe is cut (especially the part of Alessandro), but offers as a curiosity the replacement aria for Faustina Bordoni, L’armi implora dal tuo figlio (exquisitely sung by Arias Fernández) more or less where Tempesta e calma should be sung.