Renowned for his work in Baroque vocal music, René Jacobs is most frequently credited as a countertenor and as a choral director. He is somewhat less familiar as a conductor of Classical symphonic music, though he has increasingly delved into this repertoire in recordings with one of Europe's best early music groups, the Freiburger Barockorchester.
Anyone who enjoys Mozart opera should hear this disc. Yet quite a few people who'd probably love it to death if they listened are going to pass it by. Why? Well, look at the selections - it's not exactly a 'greatest hits' selection in the truly popular sense. Lucio Silla, Il re pastore, Mitridate, Zaïde - hardly front rank Mozart operas in the public consciousness; with Die Entführung we're getting closer - and suddenly you spot track 2, Pamina's gorgeous lament to lost love from The Magic Flute: 'Ach, ich fühl's' - anyone who hears Sandrine Piau singing this famous number will want to experience the rest of the recording no matter what.
Giustino is the Baroque version of a ‘ripping yarn’. The eponymous hero rises from ploughboy to emperor via an action-packed curriculum vitae that has him seeing visions, routing traitors, fighting bears and even slaying a sea-monster! Written in the autumn of 1736, shortly after Handel had suffered a period of ill-health, Giustino is not among his greatest operas, but it is thoroughly entertaining and offers much fine music. Particularly felicitous are Giustino’s bucolic aria ‘Può ben nascere tra li boschi’ and Anastasio’s lovely ‘O fiero e rio sospetto’. The headlong pace leaves Handel little time to develop the more sensual, amorous side of his music. One exception – and the opera’s most entrancing interlude – is the ravishing love duet in Act II, superbly sung here by Dorothea Röschmann (Arianna) and Dawn Kotoski (Anastasio). Michael Chance too is outstanding in the title role, proving that even countertenors can exude machismo. Nicholas McGegan coaxes a stylish performance from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Giustino is the fourth Handel opera he has now recorded following a staging at the Göttingen Festival and this is his most assured reading to date. Mention in the credits of a Bear Growl Advisor suggests a commendable attention to grizzly detail. (Graham Lock)
With over 30 of Handel’s operas awaiting a first CD recording, it seems indecent luxury to find two splendid new recordings of Ottone, a work in the vanguard of the German Handel opera revival in the 1920s, but long since relegated to obscurity. Both benefit immensely by being based on stage performances, Nicholas McGegan’s from the Göttingen Handel Festival, of which he is artistic director, Robert King’s from a production that successfully toured the UK and Japan. Broadly speaking, McGegan’s reading is distinguished by a compelling sense of drama and a wonderful feeling for Handelian style, sometimes at the expense of tonal beauty; King’s is smoother, occasionally letting the dramatic impetus flag, but offering playing of consistent strength and fine shading. McGegan, however, fields the marginally more convincing team of singers, led by Drew Minter, whose pure bright tone, breathtaking coloratura and ardent delivery give pleasure at every hearing; Bowman, for King, sings with sensitivity but his mannered tone and technical limitations are serious drawbacks. Conversely, Dominique Visse, for King, with his inimitable reedy timbre and impeccable musicianship, is matchless as Ottone’s rival in kingship, Adelberto, fine as Ralf Popken is for McGegan. Of the female roles, Claron McFadden produces a stream of radiant tone as Teofane; but so does Lisa Saffer, who, in addition, offers a wider range of colour. Both sets are recommendable, but Minter’s charismatic performance, Saffer’s deeper perceptions and the inclusion of arias Handel wrote for later revivals tip the balance in favour of McGegan. Whatever your choice, it’s an opera not to be missed. (Antony Bye)