Handel: Streams of Pleasure – Lemieux / Gauvin / Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis

The material on this recording is all new to me. I’m fairly familiar with Handel’s operas, but not the oratorios. And the impression I get from the excerpts performed here is of something that is like opera but distinct from it. This is music that maintains a certain level of decorum. The characters are mostly biblical figures of varying degrees of obscurity, with a few additions from classical mythology. There is something a little dusty about this music, but if you can work yourself around to liking — or even just appreciating — dustiness, Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Il Complesso Barocco make it very easy to enjoy.

There is no lack of atmosphere here. There is the stately “Streams of pleasure ever flowing” from Theodora HWV 68, the (decorously) bright and forthright orchestral playing in the introduction to “Destructive war” from Belshazzar HWV 61, and what was one of my favorite parts of the whole thing, Prophetic raptures swell my breast from Joseph and his Brethren HWV 59.

There is something about the way Gauvin ornaments the text in this aria that is just pretty much sheer delight. The recording as a whole is clearly done with a sense of humor — here I refer you to the cover art — and it comes through nowhere better than on this track.

Gauvin and Lemieux sound wonderful together in the duets. I noticed this particularly during “From this dread scene” and “Welcome as the dawn of day.”

As I said, though, this is a type of music that is distinct from opera – it never quite hits the dramatic or emotional high points that you find in Alcina or Rodelinda or Handel’s other great operas. This is a characteristic of the material itself, not this performance. Partly I think it’s because either we have no idea who these characters are, or they are mythological types and as a result sort of abstract – e.g. the woman whose baby Solomon doesn’t chop up, or the unnamed ‘Israelitish’ couple of “Ah! Whither shall we fly”?

The music does move into almost operatic territory in a few cases, as with “Fair virtue shall charm me” from Alexander Balus HWV 65. Or maybe it was just the orchestral/vocal interaction in this selection that reminded me of sections of instrument/voice duetting that I love in so many of Handel’s operas – I don’t know. Either way, Lemieux both sounds lovely and gives the aria just the right emotional weight.

But again, oratorio is not opera, and should probably be judged on its own terms. On its own terms, I liked this.

15 thoughts on “Handel: Streams of Pleasure – Lemieux / Gauvin / Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis

  1. I am a fan of the oratorios in general. I particularly like the way Handel uses the chorus. Many of his operas would be so much better if he used the chorus more. There has also been something of a move in recent years to staging the oratorios as opera. The only one I have seen is the Theodora that Peter Sellars did at Glyndebourne. I guess Semele started life as an oratorio and I’ll be seeing that in May as well. I have heard tell of others. I think Claus Guth created a version of Messiah for instance.

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    1. I am fan of oratorios too 🙂 Yes you are right, these years the staging of Handel’s oratorios is quite a trend, another one often gets to the opera houses is Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno.

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      1. Il Trionfo I do like – it’s one of the few I’ve absorbed over the years!

        I should try to seek out more of the oratorios, particularly when they’ve been staged as opera.

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  2. I liked Theodora with Christine Schäfer but THE ULTIMATE oratorio staged as opera is for me Claus Guth’s production of “Messiah” – here’s an excerpt:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mgz8fVe7qpk (there’s more there)
    It fulfills my love for both Baroque and Handel as well as Regie.
    And I’ve been long having a dream to see Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans in a regie interpretation. It’d surly blow my mind.

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    1. I just watched that clip – and then went and put in a request for my university’s library to find and borrow it for me, since we don’t have it. It looks fascinating – I’m looking forward to seeing/hearing the rest of it.

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  3. I wonder if the dividing line is less between opera and oratorio than between “sacred” (or, more specifically, biblical) and secular/mythological. More constraints, both in terms of music and libretto, on things like Messiah, Saul, Solomon, etc., where everybody would know the text and interpretation could mean trouble? As opposed to Hercules, Semele, Acis & Galatea (arguably an oratorio), classical subjects where “folk process” had always been the name of the game and thus there was plenty of leeway?

    btw the Met staged Samson in 1986 with Jon Vickers. (Didn’t see it but I can tell you all his bits sounded like Tristan 🙂

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    1. The sacred vs secular/mythological distinction occurred to me too – there’s a selection on this CD from Hercules HWV 60, and it struck me that in terms of subject matter this was one of the few pieces on the CD that wasn’t drawn from biblical sources. And it’s true, in the eighteenth century you could do more complicated and potentially risky things with the classical subjects than was probably wise with the bible.

      But then there are things like L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato which are secular in subject matter (I think the text was by Dryden or something, but I can’t remember) but in terms of general vibe seem closer to the biblical oratorios than to the operas.

      This whole discussion has made me curious about what types of distinction (other than the use of the chorus that John mentioned above) there are in strictly musical terms between opera and oratorio. But since the latter seem to be often staged as the former, they can’t be overwhelmingly different.

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      1. L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato… Milton?

        Hercules was recently given in Toronto by Tafelmusik in a semi-staged version with M. Pynkowski directing. Unfortunately I didn’t see it but reports were generally positive.

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  4. Thanks for this. Did you ever see the ENO production of the oratorio Jephtha which they staged? It was in credibly moving and always thought it a tragedy that they never revived it. But if you get a chance I see that it is on at Welsh National Opera and Robin Blaze is singing.

    And if you haven’t listened to his recording of duets from Handel’s oratorios with Carolyn Sampson then I heartily recommend it.

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    1. I didn’t see the ENO production of Jeptha – but what I’ve heard of Robin Blaze I’ve liked. I’ll keep an eye out for that recording with Sampson.

      If I lived in the UK I’d definitely put the Welsh National Opera production on my list!

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