‘With his acting chops and weighty bass-baritone, Purves in full cry is a splendid and fearful spectacle’ (The Times)
The magnificent Christopher Purves performs a recital of Handel’s bass arias. This unique collection demonstrates the range and brilliance of Handel’s writing for this voice, featuring a selection from Italian and English operas, English classical drama, Biblical oratorios, literary odes and a masque. Handel’s endlessly imaginative gift for characterization is fully explored here, with Purves commanding an extraordinary emotional and technical range from the buffo blustering of Polyphemus in Acis and Gatalea to the loving musings of Abinoam in ‘Tears, such as tender fathers shed’ from the oratorio Deborah.
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It is always special to encounter insightful and effective singers of Handel’s theatrical music who seem effortlessly to master every kind of technical demand that the difficult arias make upon their voice, while also using language and characterization to convey the gamut of complex emotions and personalities brought to life vividly by the composer. Fortunately, Christopher Purves is not only enthusiastic about singing from a purely musical point of view, but is also intrigued by characters whose predicaments and feelings encompass humour, nastiness, affection, lust, violence, tenderness, grief and joy (and often a combination of these). This recital is designed to explore how Handel’s bass arias for different sorts of dramatic and literary contexts are superb musically, contrasting stylistically and insightful emotionally. Most of the bass characters in Handel’s music dramas are political tyrants whose lust for power (or a woman) sends them out of control, menacing bullies for whom we may feel a mixture of disgust and empathy, or anxious old fathers worrying for their children, and sometimes several of these stereotypes can be mixed into one character. However, these theatrical personalities are often more fascinating than they are credited to be; much of their best music is imaginative, compelling and directly comparable in quality with the composer’s most popular arias for higher voices. Indeed, this programme is designed to take the listener on a thrilling journey through works created during Handel’s long career, and to explode the unfair yet all too common allegation that his bass arias chug along boringly while the blustering voice merely doubles generic basso continuo lines (an accusation still heard from eminent professional musicians). It is hoped that this album will not be received as just another collection of enjoyable arias, but instead that listeners will appreciate Handel’s genius fully evident in music written for basses to sing in works ranging from his early adventures in Italy to his last English oratorios written four decades later, with our narrative also exploring operas for the London stage, English classical drama, Biblical oratorios, literary odes and a masque.
We are roused by the roaring ‘Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto’ (Rinaldo, first performed in London in 1711). This is the first entrance of the villainous Argante, infidel King of Jerusalem, who disturbs the contemplative reverie of the Christian crusader heroes. The calm Eustazio has only just finished singing a wise text about the wheel of fortune spinning and the importance of virtuous constancy, when Argante bursts in to parley with the enemy in gloriously bellicose music including trumpets and drums. His manic declaration that he seems to hear ‘The hissing of Alecto’s serpents / And the howling of voracious Scylla’ makes little sense because the text and musical essence of the aria are borrowed from the brutish Polifemo’s arrival in Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, but notwithstanding the text’s peculiar irrelevance in Rinaldo, the musical impact offers a subtext that fits: Argante is a cocky bully who wants to intimidate his besiegers, but in the event he appears ridiculous, much like a strutting peacock preening his feathers.
In ‘I rage, I melt, I burn!’—‘O ruddier than the cherry’ (from Acis and Galatea, Cannons, 1718), Polyphemus’ attempt to be seductive is implausible and amusing. The monster cannot control his raging lust for the sea nymph Galatea (who is in love with the shepherd Acis), although the accompanied recitative ‘I rage, I melt, I burn!’ veers between fury and a hint of melancholic suffering that any unrequited lover can identify with. Calling for a wind instrument to be made for him from ‘a hundred reeds of decent growth’, he intends to serenade Galatea, but Handel’s humour pokes affectionate fun at the psychotic Cyclops by making the supposedly huge ‘pipe’ into a tiny high-pitched sopranino recorder, ideal for the witty caricature of clumsy attempts at love poetry (‘O ruddier than the cherry’).
Handel’s earlier setting of the same story (Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, Naples, 1708) for an aristocratic Neapolitan wedding is musically and structurally dissimilar. Halfway through the serenata Galatea eludes Polifemo’s unwanted advances by escaping into the sea, at which point the sorrowful monster sings ‘Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori’. Rather than the hurly-burly of the later Cannons counterpart, the Neapolitan incarnation of Polifemo sings astonishingly wide leaps, stretching two and a half octaves, that convey his grotesque nature more subtly. This beautiful aria inspires true pathos as Polifemo compares himself to a butterfly confused in the dark after a torch has been extinguished; the use of quiet strings and lyrical colour from recorder is utterly different from the humorous use of similar scoring in the Cannons scene.
The closeness of the voice part and basso continuo line is a common feature in Handel’s bass arias, but in plenty of cases the bass line and voice part work in close conjunction rather than merely doubling each other. The jaunty hunting aria ‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’ uses the instrumental bass line as a springboard for a charismatic horn solo part and boldly tuneful voice part in the ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (London, 1740), which presents an allegorical moral dispute between Melancholy (il Penseroso) and Mirth (l’Allegro); the integration of voice, instruments and poetry in ‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’ perfectly illustrates the jollity of outdoor pursuits.
Lucifer in La Resurrezione (Rome, 1708) is another grotesque character destined for ignominious failure; the opening scene commences with an Angel arriving at the gates of Hell to announce that Christ has broken the bounds of death and shattered the Devil’s power, but the arrogant Adversary mistakenly proclaims that he has defeated God in a lively accompanied recitative (‘Qual’insolita luce’) and a minor-key aria full of descending figures that suggest infernal plunging (‘Caddi, è ver’).
Biblical oratorios include several of Handel’s most memorable anxious fathers. ‘Tears, such as tender fathers shed’ (Deborah, London, 1733) features a delicate orchestration including two flutes and restrained strings, over which the elderly Israelite Abinoam expresses profound relief that his son Barak has returned victorious from war against the Canaanites.
However, not all fathers are so fortunate: for the 1751 revival of Belshazzar Handel composed a new setting of ‘To pow’r immortal my first thanks are due’, in which the Babylonian lord Gobrias solemnly thanks the virtuous Persian conqueror Cyrus for deposing his son’s murderer (the debauched Belshazzar), but the sublime tension of Handel’s string writing makes it clear that the grieving father’s emotional wounds will never heal entirely.
Handel’s Italian opera company based at London’s King’s Theatre usually included the talents of an excellent bass voice. In the early 1730s this was Antonio Montagnana, a Venetian whose voice was apparently ‘like a cannon’. His finest Handel stage role was Zoroastro in Orlando (1733): towards the end of the opera the benign magician takes pity upon the crazed Orlando, and resolves that he and his magical genii will cure the hero and put him back on his correct path towards military glory and honour (‘Sorge infausta una procella’).
In the 1720s Handel’s regular bass soloist was Giuseppe Maria Boschi, who seems to have been particularly good at playing implacable tyrants. In Riccardo Primo, Re d’Inghilterra (London, 1727) the Cypriot tyrant Isacio loses control over his kingdom on account of his violent lust for Costanza, his prisoner and the bride of Richard the Lionheart. With the English army approaching the city walls, he rejects Costanza’s petition to see reason, and stubbornly threatens that he would rather die in war than relinquish her to another man in a tempestuous aria di bravura (‘Nel mondo e nell’abisso’).
Unruly tyrants also feature in later English oratorios, such as Valens in Theodora (London, 1750); the Roman governor of Antioch vows that anyone resisting the compulsory decree to worship Jove will suffer ‘Racks, gibbets, sword and fire’.
Sometimes such characters can be more complex than they at first appear. Porsena, King of Etruria, unsuccessfully schemes to restore the exiled Roman king Lucius Tarquinius in Muzio Scevola (London, 1721). Act I was composed by Filippo Amadei, and Act II by Giovanni Bononcini, but eventually in Handel’s Act III the supposed villain relinquishes his quest gallantly, having been impressed by the valour of the Roman freedom-fighter Muzio Scevola, and deciding that he would like his daughter Irene to marry the Roman hero Orazio (Horace). However, before reaching that decision Porsena has unsuccessfully desired Clelia, actually the lover of his respected rival Muzio. ‘Volate più dei venti’ is an animated D minor evocation of raging winds that he hopes will carry him to his supposed Roman lover, but Handel springs a wonderful surprise with a Larghetto middle section in F major featuring an solo oboe.
‘Vieni, o cara’ (Agrippina, Venice, 1709) is an exquisite short cavatina in which the Roman emperor Claudius attempts to seduce Poppaea. Sometimes this aria is interpreted as the absurd folly of a randy old buffoon embarrassing himself, but Handel’s softly intimate string parts and eloquent melody for the singer clearly suggest otherwise: this is the music of an experienced serial seducer whose efforts to bed young women are probably successful under normal circumstances. Just for a short moment, the lecherous Roman emperor seems like a veritable Don Juan.
The juxtaposition of lusty anticipation and melancholy eloquence is magnificently depicted in the closing moments of the cantata Apollo e Dafne (started in Venice but completed at Hanover in 1710). The god Apollo has attempted every technique of seduction known to him to persuade the beautiful nymph Dafne to grant him her favours; her adamant refusal causes him to impatiently seize her and force himself upon the poor girl (‘Mie piante correte’, with a florid virtuoso obbligato for violin and bassoon conveying the sense of the chase), but she metamorphoses into a laurel tree. Astonished, disappointed and chastened, the guilty god promises tenderly that henceforth her branches shall decorate the wreath upon his head (‘Cara pianta’, with plaintive woodwind).
Mixed emotions are knowingly manipulated by the minstrel Timotheus in Dryden’s poem Alexander’s Feast, an ode exploring the ‘Power of Musick’ set to music by Handel in 1736. Having toyed deviously with the moods of Alexander the Great at a drunken orgy, Timotheus calls upon the conqueror to burn the city of Persepolis to the ground (‘Revenge, Timotheus cries’), in a thrilling aria that contrasts a supernatural description of the ghosts of unburied Greek soldiers (accompanied by ombra music played by bassoons and violas) with the insistence that their spirits be avenged, reinforced by heroic trumpet, bustling strings and a declamatory vocal part.
After the exhausting topsy-turvy moods and diverse situations that inspired Handel to compose his finest music for the bass voice, our survey concludes with a brief moment of sublime repose in which the Roman god Somnus cannot help falling asleep (‘Leave me, loathsome light’, Semele, London, 1744).
David Vickers © 2012