Thursday, 21 September 2017

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

I seldom listen to rival versions of the same work one after another, but I made an exception after feeling slightly disappointed this time round with Emmanuelle Haïm's version of Handel's Serenata – Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a work composed in Naples in 1708 by the 23 year old Handel. I followed Haïm's version with one from Marco Vitale with his mixed cast of Canadian, Chilean-Swedish, and American with a band mainly from the Netherlands. Emmanuelle Haïm lines up an all-star cast of Sandrine Piau, Sara Mingardo (alto), and Laurent Naouri (baritone). Marco Vitale's singers are Stefane True, Luciana Mancini (mezzo), and Mitchell Sandler (bass).

Haïm's direction is a bit fussy, at times. Vitale is more “operatic”; although the work is designated by Handel as a “serenata”, the music is always thoroughly operatic and shows all the watermarks of Handel's later operatic works. A major advantage of Vitale's version is the diction of his singers. With basic Italian, you can follow the libretto just by listening. With the Haïm version, however, the words are something of a blur, especially with Sandrine Piau, a singer I much admire for her voice and intelligence, though often expressing discontent with the lack of clarity with her diction.

Having an alto for Galatea does help differentiate the two female voices; Luciana Mancini's mezzo-soprano voices does merge often with the fresh soprano of Stefanie True, something that never happens with Piau and Mingardo. I first heard Aci at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in the 1980s. The cast then included David Thomas and Emma Kirby; I have a recording from 1986 that probably was a result of that Oxford performance; the lower female voice on that recording is Carolyn Watkinson. It's a long time since I listened to it, but it is unlikely to replace my new-found enthusiasm for Marco Vitale and his international forces. Handel's music deserves the best!

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