In 2009 Marco Vitale was to record all the Italian chamber cantatas by Handel. These were released by Brilliant Classics; four discs have appeared, the last in 2011. For reasons unknown to me the project was discontinued. It has taken a while but a new recording has now been released, this time on Vitale’s own label Ayros. It is numbered “01″, and that suggests that Vitale has started over again. Does that mean that the previously recorded cantatas will be released in new performances? Time will tell.
This is certainly a major project, and one can only hope that Vitale will be able to bring it to fruition. After all, Handel’s output in the genre of the chamber cantata is huge: more than 100 cantatas were written during his stay in Italy, and after his arrival in England he continued to compose such works. Only a relatively small proportion of them is well-known today. It can hardly surprise that the present disc includes two cantatas which, according to Ellen T. Harris in her liner-notes, have not been recorded before.
These two, Qualor l’egre pupille and Ne’ tuoi lumi, o bella Clori, were composed for the soprano Margherita Durastante, who played a significant role in Handel’s career. She appeared in several of his operas, first in Agrippina (Venice, 1709) and for the last time in Arianna (London, 1734). She apparently was a versatile artist: the two cantatas with basso continuo belong to the pastoral genre, whereas Armida abbandonata, also written for her, is a pocket-size opera.
In Qualor l’egre pupille an unhappy lover laments the loss of his beloved. In the first aria the protagonist makes use of the then popular image of a ship, “tossing in the middle of the sea”. The cantata comprises two recitative-aria pairs, and closes with a recitative. That was quite unusual and in a later version the closing recitative was omitted. Here we hear the first version. The second aria includes chromatic passages.
Ne’ tuoi lumi, o bella Clori begins with an aria which is followed by two recitative-aria pairs. It brings us into the idyllic world of Arcadia, inhabited by shepherds and shepherdesses, such as Aminta, Clori and Fileno. The lover praises the beauty of Clori’s eyes, and the fact that she has given him the cold shoulder doesn’t cool his ardour. He is even ready to suffer torment if that brings pleasure to her.
The most happy cantata is Notte placida e cheta which opens the programme. It may also have been written for Durastante. It is again about love in the Arcadian world, with the lover dreaming about Phyllis. This is scored for soprano, two violins and bc and comprises four recitative-aria pairs; the last two recitatives are accompanied. The strings play an important role in the depiction of the text; for instance in illustrating the “pleasant murmuring breezes” in the first aria. The dreamy atmosphere is brutally disrupted in the last recitative: “[What] intruder disrupts my sleep and steals all the pleasure from me?” The last aria then sums up the harsh reality: “[The] peace we long for in this world cannot be found if our life is no more than a dream”.
This turnaround is not fully explored here. Roberta Mameli and the ensemble could have taken this in a more dramatic way. That also goes for the last cantata of the programme, Dietro l’orme fugace, better known as Armida abbandonata. It has the character of an operatic scena and opens with an accompanied recitative for soprano and strings, without basso continuo. It sets the scene for what is going to happen. In fact it could have been performed with more intensity, and the strings could have made more of the arpeggiated figures. They fall silent at the last line: “[Weeping] and sighing, she [Armida] spoke thus”; this moment is not dramatic enough. However, there is no lack of expression in the following aria: “Ah! cruel one, you depart, abandoning me to my grief”. The accompagnato ‘O voi dell’incostante’ is the most dramatic episode in this cantata, and that is well realised here. Only the closing exclamation, “Ah! no, cease!” should have been given more weight. I don’t quite understand why Mameli sings this piano. The ensuing aria ‘Venti, fermate’ (Cease, o winds) is beautifully sung and played, and the Armida’s state of mind is eloquently exposed. The cantata ends with a nice aria in siciliano rhythm.
Despite my slight reservations in regard to the dramatic aspects, I have greatly enjoyed this disc. I don’t know all the previous recordings on Brilliant Classics but those I have heard I mostly liked. The qualities of those recordings are continued here. The recitatives are taken with the rhythmic flexibility expected from performers, and Roberta Mameli’s diction is outstanding. The performers also pay attention to the ornamentation; Mameli adds plenty of it, but never in an excessive way and always stylish and tasteful. She seems at her best in the more introverted pieces. She has a beautiful voice; I only regret the slight tremolo which sometimes creeps in, especially at the end of phrases. The tempi are generally modest, and so is the dynamic shading. That lends these performances a great deal of intimacy, but also leads to a slight underexposure of the dramatic aspects. That comes especially to the fore in Armida abbandonata.
That said, there is every reason to welcome this disc and to look forward to the following volumes in this project. No lover of Handel’s music should miss it.
Johan van Veen