Philharmonia Baroque of San Francisco has released a new recording of Handel’s Atalanta this year. It is the fourth disc since the founding of Philharmonia Baroque Productions in 2011, and Atalanta is, in a word, magnificent. Sheer beauty to the ear.
Atalanta is a two-disc album of the 1736 opera in three acts that was recorded live at Berkley’s First Congregational Church on September 10 and 11 of 2005. It features the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Chorale under the direction of Bruce Lamott, and a stellar cast, featuring:
ATALANTA – Dominique Labelle, soprano
MELEAGRO – Susanne Rydén, soprano
IRENE – Cécile van de Sant, mezzo-soprano
AMYNTAS – Michael Slattery, tenor
NICANDRO – Philip Cutlip, baritone
MERCURIO – Corey McKern, baritone
The story behind Atalanta’s creation is interesting. Handel sought to write something to entertain Frederick, Prince of Wales, on the occasion of his marriage to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. A work intended for a wedding must not be too sober and needs to end happily in celebration of true love, thereby auguring a happy union for the newlyweds. In that regard Atalanta absolutely fits the bill and ends in a happy duet between the royal lovers after a few missteps including a serious instance of mistaken identity. But how can any royal know if he or she is truly loved without taking on the guise of a commoner?
The leading roles are all expertly sung. In the title role, soprano Dominique Labelle is simply angelic. She exhibits both an indescribable augustness and, though everyone knows true love will prevail for Atalanta by the end of the opera, a surprising level of passion that is perceived as genuinely plaintive, especially in her Act II aria “Lassa! ch’io t’ho perduta,” which has a piercing beauty.
Swedish soprano Susanne Rydén as King Mealagro (originally a castrato role) is also a standout in this recording and displays an impressive command of the baroque repertoire from the moment the opera opens with her mellifluous-as-honey arioso “Cara selve.” What an incredible amount of voice control and judicious use of vibrato!
If there is a style of opera where voices project with more clarity and purity of tone than baroque, I am not aware of it. Of course, the quality of this recording also is to be commended in complementing the form.
Another singer turning in an unforgettable performance on this recording is young American tenor and crossover artist Michael Slattery. He sang the lovesick shepherd Amyntas adroitly, with power and passion. Slattery sings Baroque opera as skillfully as he handles oratorio and Broadway tunes. His pitch-perfect emotional performance washes over the listener and has the power to sweep her away in a tide of happy reverie. And sometimes unbridled longing to be in the physical presence of such a talented artist.
The orchestration and choral interludes are alternately crisp and grand–vivacious and befitting of nobility–and a sheer treat for the listener. While Handel himself deserves much of the credit for such a charming and uncommon score, credit must also go to the conductor Nicholas McGegan, whose expertise in handling and interpretation of 18th-century music is unprecedented. He is one of a select few baroque specialists who regularly conducts the major orchestras, including those of Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington, to name a few. Listening to the chorale is like hearing the choirs of heaven.
Since its inception in 1981, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has been devoted historically-informed performance of Baroque, Classical, and early-Romantic music on original instruments and is regarded as an “ensemble for early music as fine as any in the world today.” It was founded by early music pioneer and harpsichoridist Laurette Goldberg.