Giovanni Battista Rigon leads the Orchestra Internazionale in a performance of Paisello’s music that has both refinement and energy to spare. Though not a memorable melodist — surely if he had been, his operas would be performed more frequently — Paisello orchestrates with flair and imagination. Timpani thwacks fire off the lively sinfonia. A moody harpsichord, instead of isolating itself in the recitatives, offers sparkling commentary in some of the arias. Fine choral writing makes the contributions of the Slovak Chamber Choir highlights of the set. The live recording from 2006 captures this all in decent sound, with little stage noise.
Unfortunately, the singing of the soloists ranges from the acceptable to the lame. In the latter category, Razek Francois Bitar encompasses many of the criticisms laid against countertenors. He either hoots or squeaks, frequently sings out of tune, and most often sounds like a superannuated soprano. As he is a lead, this severely hampers the recording’s success. His character, Clearco, wins an athletic contest but turns down the reward of the hand in marriage of the king’s daughter Egesta, as Clearco loves another — Aspasia, his own sister! But of course Aspasia is not really Clearco’s sister. In fact, he is Egesta’s brother, due to a plot twist straight out of the Oedipus story. And a happy revelation of that secret, very much unlike that of the Oedipus story, brings the opera to its close. In the other major male role, that of Eraclide the king, some wonderful music gets battered by the leathery lungs of tenor Marcello Nardis. The sopranos — Maria Laura Martorana as Aspasia and Mara Lanfranchi as Egesta — may not be exciting new signing discoveries, but at least they aren’t the tests of endurance that the men are.
However, it would be foolish to wait around for a better sung performance of I Giuochi d’Agrigento. If it happens, great. In the meanwhile, anyone who enjoys operas from this era should be willing to listen through some unsatisfactory vocalising in order to enjoy the riches of Paisiello’s score.