Handel: Arianna in Creta (complete opera)

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Handel: Arianna in Creta (complete opera)
Mata Katsuli (soprano) Mary-Ellen Nesi (mezzo) Irini Karaianni (mezzo) (Marita Paparizou (mezzo) Petros Magoulas (bar) / Orchestra of Patras / George

[ MDG / 3 CD Box Set ]

Release Date: Saturday 15 July 2006

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"One of Handel's underrated works ... never less than interesting ... a strong performance where vivid, dramatic values are to the fore"
(MusicWeb June 2006)

"Arianna in Creta was one of the first operas that Handel wrote for his company after the majority of his singers departed to the rival Opera of the Nobility. He was left with just soprano Anna Maria Strada del Po from his old company; the remainder of the singers for the 1733-34 season were all new. Besides Strada, for whom Handel would write the title role in Alcina, the star of the new company was the castrato Carestini for whom Handel wrote the heroic role of Teseo in Arianna in Creta. Though written comment from Handel's time is rather equivocal regarding the opera's success, it does seem to have been a success with audiences as it received over twenty performances in 1734.

The plot concerns the familiar story of Theseus (Teseo) and the Minotaur, though the details are somewhat different to the mythological story. Teseo has arrived from Athens with the annual tribute, seven young men and seven female virgins, who will all be fed to the Minotaur. Teseo requests that Arianna be returned to Athens in return; Teseo loves Arianna. She is the daughter of King Minos but does not realise it, though Teseo does know, her old nurse having confided the fact to Teseo's father. Teseo loves Arianna who loves Teseo. Unfortunately Arianna's friend Carilda is amongst the seven virgins and Teseo volunteers to fight the Minotaur to save Carilda. This makes Arianna jealous; something that is not helped by the fact that Carilda loves Teseo. Carilda in her turn, is loved by Teseo's friend Alceste and by the Cretan general Tauride. Teseo kills the Minotaur; remarkably for baroque opera this is depicted on stage. The result is happiness all round with Teseo and Arianna, Carilda and Alceste pairing up.

The opera's theme is that steadfastness and love shall overcome barbarism and cruelty; this is made explicit in the opening scene when the great stone, on which is written the tribute agreement between Athens and Crete, falls and shatters. Both threads of the plot, Teseo fighting the Minotaur to the jeopardy of his relationship with Arianna and Alceste's steadfast love of Carilda, reinforce the opera's message. There is no enlivening sub-plotting and there is no female soubrette. In fact the disposition of voice parts is interesting, though probably the result of necessity. The two soprano voices are Arianna and Alceste, all the others are mezzo-sopranos or contraltos with a bass playing the two small parts of King Minos and Sleep. Tauride is a effectively mezzo part though it was written for the ageing soprano Margherita Durastanti who, remarkably, had first appeared with Handel in Rome in 1708.

This is not the opera's first outing on disc, a recording from the Göttingen festival appeared in 1999 with Sophie Daneman in the title role. This current recording originates from the Opera Festival of Ancient Corinth where the performers presented the opera staged by Niketi Kontouri. Conductor George Petrou has recorded Handel's pasticcio Oreste for MDG.

That the performers had already performed the opera in a staged version is undoubtedly an advantage as the dramatic performance from all the singers is very vivid; the recitative really sounds like drama. When it comes to the individual voices, none lets the opera down and I I can heartily recommend the set to anyone interested in exploring one of the more fascinating byways of Handel's art.

As Arianna, Mata Katsui displays a wonderfully liquid tone in her arias. Her voice is affecting which admirably suits the rather lamenting quality of the characters. Arianna is a bit wet, but she does display admirable bravura temperament in her Act 1 arias, 'Sdegno, amore' with its striking repeated Sdegno.

The hero, Teseo, was one of two roles Handel wrote for the soprano castrato Carestini; the other was Ariodante. Carestini specialised in bravura vocal parts, reminiscent of Italian instrumental concerti. Handel pulled out all the stops for him with seven arias, some dramatic accompagnatos and a striking scene at the beginning of Act 2 when he dreams he is fighting the Minotaur. The actual slaying is relatively matter of fact, it takes place during the extended ritornello of the previous aria. Mary Ellen Nesi copes very well with the part. She has an attractive, dark voice and an amazing turn of speed in her bravura passagework. But, like all the low voices on the disc, she has a noticeable vibrato which, for me, gets in the way during the faster passagework. I also found the faster runs came over as a little effortful. But she creates a vivid picture of a dramatic hero and her performance can be positively thrilling.

As the heroine's friend Carilda, Irini Karaini has another lovely dark voice, but again I found her vibrato less than ideal and her passagework untidy. She is a vivid performer though and probably comes over very well in the theatre. Her would-be lover, Alceste, is sung by Theodora Baka with beautiful tone and a fine line. Her Act 2 aria Son qual stanco Pellegrin has a lovely cello obbligato. There are hints of untidiness in Baka's faster passages but with a voice as beautiful as this, who can complain.

Tauride is the nearest thing that the opera has to a baddy. It is a relatively small part but Handel wrote it for his old friend Margherita Durastanti so Tauride gets some terrific arias including one with horns. Marita Paparizou is a vivid performer with a rich voice, though she is inclined to wildness in the more bravura passages. Petros Magoulas is admirable in the relatively small role of King Minos.

The orchestra under George Petrou start the overture crisply, cleanly and with admirable bounce. They continue in this vein, providing lively support to the singers and contributing some fine instrumental playing. Besides the aforementioned arias with solo cello and with horns, Alceste's Act 3 aria is one of those where Handel writes an independent line for unison violins, with striking results.

Arianna in Creta is one of Handel's underrated works from a period when he was experimenting with form. Not all the arias display him at peak form but they are never less than interesting. Here George Petrou and his forces give a strong performance where vivid, dramatic values are to the fore - I would love to have seen the staged performances. My complaints regarding the singers are mainly ones of style and may not bother everyone; certainly all concerned cope admirably with some of Handel's bravura vocal writing."
(MusicWeb June 2006)