Handel Arias with Avery Amereau




Handel Arias with Avery Amereau

Buy contralto Avery Amereau’s debut CD featuring Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and arias from Rinaldo, Amadigi, Giulio Cesare, and more!

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Avery Amereau, contralto
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

This recording is made possible by a generous gift from the Waverley Fund. © and ℗ 2019 Philharmonia Baroque Productions.


Liner Notes
by Bruce Lamott

George Frideric Handel lavished particular attention on the contralto or mezzo-soprano roles in his operas and oratorios throughout his career. The distinction between these vocal categories of low voices who sang in the alto clef, was then and is now quite arbitrary. Castrato men who often sang the title roles in Italian opera seria (serious opera) were often described as “contraltos,” while women singing in the same range were called variously “contralto,” “mezzo soprano,” and even “countertenor.”

Of the six known singers who premiered the works in this recording, three were women. The English contralto Anastasia Robinson began her career as a soprano, but with Zenobia in Radamisto in 1720, she turned to contralto roles. Jane Barbier, also English, sang just three seasons with the Italian opera in London. She generally sang male roles, as did the Italian contralto Francesca Vanini-Boschi, who sang for Handel in Venice early in his career.

The Italian castratos represented here outline a succession of Handel’s leading men. Nicolo Grimaldi, known as “Nicolini,” at the height of his long career, helped to launch Handel’s success with Italian opera in London from 1708 to 1717. Handel’s longest-serving castrato, from 1720 to 1734, was Francesco Bernardi (“Senesino”), known for his “powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice” and unrivalled dramatic presence. Upon Senesino’s defection to the Opera of the Nobility in 1733, Handel imported Giovanni Carestini to sing in both his Italian operas and English oratorios intermittently until 1740—though because of his poor English, he was permitted to sing both in Italian.

Benché tuoni e l’etra avvampi from Aci, Galatea, e Polifemo (1708)

First performed by Giovanni Battista Tamburini(?)

Unlike the serious operas (opere serie) from which the other works in this collection are taken, Aci, Galatea, e Polifemo is an extended dramatic cantata or “serenata” for three singers written for the wedding of the Duke of Alvito in Naples in 1708. Though based on the same story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as Handel’s later English operatic entertainment, Acis and Galatea, the two works bear little resemblance. In this aria, Galatea confronts the fulminating monster Polifemo with fulminations of her own: an extravagant and quite unpredictable tour-de-force of coloratura accompanied by orchestral thunder effects and a florid oboe solo that both engages with the singer and strikes out on its own. The turbulence continues through the B section in a churning cello line.

“Otton, Otton…Voi che udite il mio lamento” from Agrippina (1709–10)

First performed by Francesca Vanini-Boschi

A character from Roman history in the First Century CE, Ottone (Otho) is an officer in the Roman Imperial army in love with the courtesan Poppea, who is also pursued by the Emperor Claudius and emperor-apparent, Nero. Through the machinations of Nero’s mother Agrippina, Ottone has lost favor with the emperor, but laments even more Poppea’s inexplicable estrangement. A shockingly dissonant diminished chord introduces Ottone’s equally dissonant melodic line which begins the accompagnato on a rising tritone (augmented fourth, the diabolus in musica). He vacillates between self-pity and outraged accusations against those who brought him to his sorry state. The aria begins with harsh chromaticism between the violas and first violins in a brief contrapuntal imitation before the voice joins in. Ottone’s melody is jagged with dissonant leaps rising and falling into the extremities of his range. A plangent oboe solo adds another layer of dissonance—suspensions over the pulsating harmonies—before joining the voice in duet of parallel harmony. The torturous vocal line weaves between the continuing pulsations in the B section, painting the word tormento (torment) before sinking to the lowest reaches of the voice.

“Cara sposa, amante cara” from Rinaldo (1711)  

First performed by Nicolo Grimaldi (“Nicolini”)

The sorceress Armida, “seated on a chariot drawn by two dragons,” has just abducted Rinaldo’s beloved Almirena in a “black cloud, filled with horrible monsters, emitting flames and smoke,” leaving behind two hideous Furies who, after mocking Rinaldo, sink below the ground. As Rinaldo reacts, the violins weave a seamless polyphonic web over a rising chromatic viola line and the voice enters seemingly two measures early, perhaps reflecting Rinaldo’s disorientation. The late arrival of the continuo cello and bass until after his first statement of the text also lends an ungrounded quality to the stanza, and the overlapping lines of the strings bear little connection to the vocal line. His emotion rises with the ascending chromatic line to a three-measure sustained “pianti” (tears). In the Allegro B section, Rinaldo’s melancholy becomes defiant in terse exclamations echoed by the strings. Because of the da capo structure, however, his resolve abates in the return to the introductory ritornello.

“Venti, turbini” from Rinaldo                                

First performed by Nicolini

Rinaldo, a Crusader character taken from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, has just witnessed the evil sorceress Armida abduct his fiancée, Almirena. His friends go to solicit aid from an astrologer, and he is left alone to swear vengeance. Despite the major key, Rinaldo’s fury is reflected in a turbulent moto perpetuo in concerto style with the unusual scoring of solo bassoon (not cello) beneath the solo violin. An aria di bravura to close Act I, it exploits the agility and dramatic ability of the alto castrato while remaining within a compass of little over one octave. The B section briefly reduces the orchestra to keeping time while the voice continues the relentless energy.

“Or la tromba in son festante” from Rinaldo  

First performed by Nicolini

Rinaldo announces the siege of Jerusalem prior to the battle that he will win for the Crusaders.  A heroic castrato aria di bravura, it is also the final aria of the opera. A quartet of trumpets and timpani augment the strings, oboes, and bassoon, opening with  rousing fanfare rhythms. The voice itself imitates oscillating brass trillo figures and engages the trumpet in an exchange of call-and-response. Handel uses the boisterous tutti ensemble sparingly, confining it to punctuation between phrases in deference to the vocal part. As is customary with trumpet arias, the B section is left to the singer and continuo alone, giving the players a brief respite before attacking the fanfares of the da capo.

“Senti, bell’idol mio” from Silla (1713[?])  

First performed by Jane Barbier

Claudio, a Roman knight, is in love with Celia, who secretly loves him as well. A misunderstanding arises in this, their first scene together, and Claudio presses his case in an intimate quasi-serenade, simply scored for continuo with an undulating cello obbligato. After a fully written-out da capo, the strings enter, concluding the aria with the cello’s initial melody, as if they had been listening the whole time.

“Con tromba guerriera” from Silla  

First performed by Jane Barbier

Claudio has just witnessed his beloved Celia exit, fawning over the tyrannical Roman Emperor Silla. Thus thwarted, Claudio brings Act I to a stirring conclusion, declaring that fame summons him to conquer his vainglorious rival. The martial clichés of trumpet fanfares and repeated-note calls to arms known as the concitato style are answered by solo oboe substituting for a second trumpet. Claudio accepts the trumpet’s challenge of a 6-measure sustained note by doubling it, breaking into a trill at midpoint. The vocal gymnastics on l’orgoglio (pride) and pugnar (warfare) are as unyielding as the  trumpet part which continues throughout most of the B section.

“È si dolce il mio contento” from Amadigi di Gaula (1715)  

First performed by Nicolini

Whenever, in the midst of the first act, a character sings that he shall have nothing to dread, we the audience know better (see no. 2). In this short-lived romantic dalliance, Amadigi (Amadis), son of the King of Gaul, flirts with his beloved Oriana in a giddy gavotte, accompanied by a simple clockwork accompaniment of violins. The orchestra, playing interludes and the opening and closing ritornellos, also engages in a playful riposte with the singer.

“O rendetemi il mio bene” from Amadigi

First performed by Nicolini

In this final aria of Act I, Amadigi has just seen his love Oriana taken off by demons at the order of the jealous sorceress Melissa. He begs the “treacherous stars” to return his love or let him die. Unison violins plunge in jagged dotted rhythms like shooting stars against the plaintive vocal line. In the introspective B section, the stellar assault abates, leaving only the continuo accompaniment of a complementary lyrical line.

“Sussurrate, onde vezzose” from Amadigi  

First performed by Nicolini

At the top of Act II, Amadigi, having ended Act I alone and in despair, finds himself in “a garden with a magnificent palace at a distance; in the midst of it is the Fountain of True Love.” Two recorders create an atmospheric effect with birdcalls and lilting melodies over the murmuring pulsations of second violins and violas. The voice enters unaccompanied, an invitation for a signature vocal ornament of the Baroque period: the sustained crescendo and decrescendo called mesa di voce. The vocal roulades are fluid and meandering in this vivid musical evocation of limpidity.

“Già che morir non posso” from Radamisto (1720)  

First performed by Anastasia Robinson

Zenobia, “a Princess of Noble Blood, and Nobler Virtue,” is the wife of Radamisto, whose brother-in-law, the King of Armenia, has amorous designs on her. Seeing that his troops are advancing and fearing that she will become the tyrant’s prey, she urges Radamisto to kill her. When he cannot bring himself to do so, she attempts suicide by throwing herself into a river, but is saved by yet another would-be suitor. Zenobia rails at her rescuer and invokes the furies of hell to accompany her in her grief. In a form of aria all’unisono in which the orchestra doubles the vocal line in unison or octaves, the voice enters accompanied only by unison violins, gradually accumulating harmonizing violas and finally cellos and bass. Tortured chromaticism paints dolor (sadness) in the A section. With a shift from D minor to F major in the B section, the violins respond between the vocal phrases and the conventional continuo accompaniment supports the voice.

“Priva son d’ogni conforto” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724)  

First performed by Anastasia Robinson

Cornelia, wife of Julius Caesar’s political rival Pompey, has just been prevented from suicide after the shock of witnessing her husband’s severed head ceremoniously presented to Caesar by order of the devious Egyptian ruler Tolomeo (Ptolmey XII). Her response is immediate, with no orchestral introduction. The transverse flute. an instrument which in the Baroque period associated with funereal music, reinforces and interweaves with the first violin line. The long-breathed melody breaks into two-note sobbing figures and the final phrase ends with a sighing appoggiatura. The contour of the vocal line rises with emotion and plunges into the dark, lower register of the voice, reflecting both wish her for death and her frustration at being denied it.

“Dall’ondoso periglio…Aure deh per pietà” from Giulio Cesare

First performed by Senesino

Caesar, presumed dead from drowning after diving into the sea in Act II to escape his enemy Tolomeo, emerges from the waves. He believes he has been rescued by fate, but alone and without his troops, the self-described “monarch of the world” despairs. In the aria, he invokes the breezes to bring him comfort and tell him the whereabouts of his beloved Cleopatra. Suddenly aware of the carnage of battle surrounding him, he resumes his dramatic soliloquoy before returning to the da capo. The opening ritornello, anticipating the following aria, provides an atmospheric introduction with undulating  pairs of stepwise appoggiaturas in parallel harmonies, a popular Baroque depiction of breezes and streams. The accompanied recitative (accompagnato) reflects Caesar’s two states of mind; floating sustained harmonies support his wonder at his survival, and sharp dotted interjections punctuate his realization of his situation. The aria is a modified “motto aria” in which the singer alone sings the first word (aure, breezes)—sustained to allow for an expressive crescendo and decrescendo (mesa di voce)—before the orchestra begins with a fragment of the ritornello played at the beginning of the scene. The melancholy vocal line lies in the lower range, rising only to prepare an expressive downward leap.

“Verdi prati” from Alcina (1735)                                                                                

First performed by Giovanni Carestini

Having just discovered that his presumed rival in Act I is actually his beloved Bradamante in disguise, Ruggiero is preparing to escape the jealous wrath of the sorceress Alcina (in love with him) and her sister Morgana (in love with Bradamante’s convincing gender-switch). Before the recently reconciled couple escapes, Ruggiero predicts that the wooded paradise magically created by Alcina will return to the desert it once was. Handel creates his own paradise with this simple rondo melody, syllabically set with the balanced phrases of the galant style, harmonized by the string choir. None of Ruggiero’s dire predictions come to pass, of course, and Handel uses this bucolic interlude as a foil to the subterranean sorcery that follows. It is reported that Carestini disliked the simplicity of this aria but that Handel refused to pay his wages until he sang it.