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.