I suspect that this is one of those recordings that I would have liked more ten years ago than I do now. At that point, the sort of pyrotechnics Kermes engages in here were newer to me and more exciting.
I listened to this twice, because the first time I found myself thinking that it was very nice, but that I was not particularly interested. (Sometimes I half wonder whether 75% of my reactions to music are more to do with my mood that day than the actual content of what I hear. And since I am temperamentally quite moody – apparently I have inherited this from my father – this can vary quite a bit.)
After two go-rounds, I think my original assessment is valid. Both in the sense that – with certain exceptions – it actually is possible to have enough baroque opera recital recordings, and also in that while this one is all right, I wouldn’t give to to someone I was trying to convert to my love of baroque opera.
There are some nice moments in both the singing and the accompaniment (the orchestra is Le Meusiche Nove, conducted by Claudio Osele). I enjoyed the mandolin(?) in Giovanni Bononcini’s “più che freme il nembo irato,” for example, as well as the orchestral playing in general in the following number, an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti called “cante dolce il rosignolo,” the name of which leads one to suspect that there are going to be some imitation bird stylings which might or might be annoying, but which in this case are not. There is a bit of the expected with woodwinds dancing around the vocal line, but not in that “fucking hell, not another bird aria” way. I was also reminded at several points (e.g. the harpsichord alongside the strings in the intro to Scarlatti’s “cara tomba”) of the amount of color and variety you can get out of a little baroque ensemble like this, if you pay attention to the details.
As a soloist, though, Kermes didn’t really grip me. The second time I listened to the recording I heard more distinctness and personality in the voice and in the interpretation – this happened with the first track, “il mar de le mie piene,” for example – and even more so later in the recording. In track ten, Scarlatti’s “torbido irato e nero” there are some sections of ornament towards the end that are unaccompanied, and having the vocal part exposed in this way is nice; you can hear her voice and what it’s doing very distinctly. Same with Antonio Caldara’s “fiamma ignota” a little later, which has more of those moments of voice and solo instrument (in this case, a violin) that feel very imitate and revelatory.
I hesitated quite a bit trying to decide whether this was good singing that I was just failing to appreciate, or good singing that was good, but not knock you out of your chair great. In the second track, an “ombra mai fù” that is from a version of Xerxes not by Handel but by Giovanni Bononcini, there is a gentleness and intimacy (in this love song . . . to a tree) that is pretty, and well executed, but I didn’t really get lost in it. Something similar happened at the very end, with an aria called “chi non senti” by Riccard Broschi, which I have heard before on one of Vivica Genaux’s recital recordings and rather liked I believe I have sort of heard before on Genaux’s “Arias for Farinelli” disc. Same composer, same music, transposed up a bit, different words, and from different operas, but I think it’s the same animal, or close to it. Anyway. Kermes’s low notes in this didn’t quite have the glow that her higher ones do, and yet there was something about it that I liked. It was a little softer, and musically neither singer nor ensemble leaned on the beat of the music in the same way that Genaux and the Akadamie für Alte Musik Berlin (with Jacobs) did. Genaux was more solid and stately; Kermes sounded gentler. Perhaps it was the very lack of fireworks that made it appealing – there are ornaments, but it’s not a pyrotechnic tour-de-force.
In the end, though, if you were to grab me by the shirt collar and insist that I articulate yes or no on this, I think the answer would be more no than yes. The general vibe in terms of the sort of voice Kermes has and what she does with it is similar to say, Patricia Petibon or Roberta Invernizzi – at one point, I believe it was in one of the Caldera arias, I remember thinking that a particular sort of squealy-sounding moment of ornamentation reminded me of the former – but without the feeling of energy I often hear in Invernizzi or Petibon’s often delightful usually delightful characteristic weirdness. On the whole, my reaction to this was a bit like my reaction to Kermes in that recording of Handel’s Rodelinda with Alan Curtis and Il complesso barocco. Accurate and easy on the ears and not without personality, but perhaps not one to listen to over and over.