Handel from the Netherlands and an auspicious start to a promising series

Handel's serenata was composed for a wedding celebration at Naples in summer 1708. Emmanuelle Haim's quirky 2003 recording (Virgin, 7/03) features plenty of colourful music-making and presents a stronger conflict between the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus and the two lovers than this tidy performance by the young Netherlands-based group Contrasto Armonico, which is apparently the first in a series of Handel projects. The group will presumably improve at small details, such as the continuo team telescoping cadences at the end of recitatives, the singers raising the dramatic convinction of the story-telling a few more degrees, and the orchestra finding a way to retain the fine aspects of its elegant playing while achieving more varied characteristics in different arias.


However, this is an auspicious debut. The duet "Sorge il di" illustrates the tasteful understanding between singers and instrumentalists. Luciana Mancini has a more suitable voice for a part that Handel probably wrote for a mezzo-soprano rather than Haim's contraldo Sara Mingardo. Canadian soprano Stefanie True is more understated than Haim's trump card Sandrine Piau, but sings Acis no less beautifully. Mitchell Sandler's performance of Polyphemus' "Sibilar l'angui d'Aletto" is flamboyant rather than menacing, but there is something to be said for allowing the convivial radiance of Handel's music to shine.


The performance is noteworthy for Marco Vitale's natural tempi and obvious affection for the subtleties in Handel's notation ("Qui l'augel di pianta in pianta" is performed lyrically in 6/8 as the composer indicated, unlike Haim's lush but self-indulgent slow 3/4). The fast music is quick enough, but never at the expense of articulacy. Recitatives could flow a little more freely, but I particularly enjoyed their clarity and simplicity, which allows the listener time to become fully immersed in the poetry. Rather than trying to escape the music's stylised conventions (as Haim often seems overly desperate to), Vitale warmly embraces them and shares them with his listeners.

David Vickers
Gramophone Awards 2008