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Recordings

Faustina Bordoni:  Faces of a prima donna
28 Aug 2007

Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna

Opera singers today have become almost as famous and publicly worshipped as movie-stars; yet this has always been the case in operatic history.

Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna

Kimberly Barber, mezzo-soprano (Cleofide, Alceste, Pulcheria), Arion, orchestre baroque, Monica Huggett (director/violon baroque), with Jonathan Carle, baritone (Ercole)

CBC Records 1172 [CD]

$17.98  Click to buy

During the 18th century, the castrati were the most desired voice type and one might initially think that there weren’t any female singers of great caliber; however one of the greatest female singers of her time was born in Venice in 1697 and lived there until 1781. Mezzo-soprano, Faustina Bordoni made her operatic debut in 1716 in Carlo Francesco Pollarolo’s Ariodante. She became known as the “new siren,” and was commonly just recognized by her first name, Faustina. This historical CD is a tribute to her and to the works of Hasse and Handel.

Cleofide, was Johann Adolf Hasse’s (1689-1783) first opera for the Saxon court. It explores themes of jealousy and royalty, as well as the position of women in kingdoms. The libretto to this work stems from Metastasio’s Alessandro nell’Indie and the title role of Cleofide was one of Faustina’s most well-loved roles. Featured here is the Sinfonia, and Qual tempesta d’affetti (recitativo) and Son qual misera colomba (aria). The Sinfonia, opens with a luscious Allegro di molto in which the Arion orchestra is well-balanced between orchestral sections. The brilliance of the brass is suggestive of the regal qualities of the opera. At this time it was not mandatory for the overture/sinfonia to reflect the dramatic impetus of the story, yet Hasse makes this quite appropriate. In the ensuing Allegretto, we move to a lovely, lilting 6/8 with aesthetic dedication to the up-lift required by this music. The clavicembalo performed by Olivier Fortin elegantly plucks along the beat with a dance-like quality and allows a well measured contrast to the opening Allegro. To end the Sinfonia, an allegro assai with brass instituting a rhythmic ostinato above cascading scalar passages in the violins. Some wonderful moments of consequent and antecedent phrasing present themselves within Arion’s orchestral fabric.

The recitativo accompagnato from Acte II, Qual tempesta d’affetti opens with a strong rhythmic inflection in unison by the orchestra leading to the vocal entrance. Barber’s voice is round and her inflections in this text are excited and sparkling. Her Italian is quite impressive and her attention to the Baroque performance aesthetic is profound. There is a lovely interlude that brings the recitativo into a slower and more reflective mood; a true testament to Hasse’s attention to dramatic motion and tension. Barber merges swiftly between voce di testa and voce di petto (head and chest voice) and her lower tessitura is thrilling and creates refined dramatic colour in combination with the orchestral fabric. The aria Son qual misera colomba opens with a pleasant and melodic instrumental prelude. Barber spins out coloratura in what seem like endless melismas of vocal pyrotechnics. She manages to retain a beautiful and lyrical line even through the infusion of notes. Her trills and especially the end of the second “libertà” is very impressive with quick passages of descending triads. The B section of the ternary aria is well-contrasted by Barber from the excitement of the first section. The supportive Arion orchestra is complimentary and provides elegant and dramatic support when needed. They are never overpowering and let the voice glimmer in its true and exciting element. The Da Capo is thrillingly performed by Barber and the well-chosen seconds of chest voice at the ends of certain coloratura passages are brilliant.

Excerpts from Handel’s Admeto are offered, again beginning with the Ouverture (Sinfonia) to Acte II, and to contrast the excitement of the Hasse, we are introduced to a beautiful Largo. Distinctive chords open this, from which stem cascades of ascending 16th note scalar passages. There are lovely moments of drama in that attention is paid to antecedent and consequent phrasing. An effective use of terraced dynamics is approached aesthetically and the orchestra is well-balanced in its presentation here. Following the Largo is an Allegro that is more polyphonically constructed. The orchestra divides itself into rhythmic support and two melodies occurring: one in the violins and another in the oboe; a welcomed contrast to the previous Largo.

In Scène I, we are introduced to the voice of Baritone, Jonathan Carle as Ercole. His recitativo, In van ti scuoti, in vano is elegant and his voice is lush and pleasant, however his Italian is marked by too many aspirated consonances making it sound in-authentic. The language sounds almost amateurish in comparison to Barber’s meticulous attention to diction. The recitative is followed by another Sinfonia that is filled with beautiful running passages in the violins surrounded by suspended falling seconds in the brass. The fagotto and traverso could be a tad louder in the recording mix as they are often much imbedded within the texture. Perhaps bringing these instruments further forward would give the orchestral fabric a more colourful and poignant colour.

Scène 7 is a recitative between Alceste and Ercole, A qual fine, o Regina. Again, Carle’s Italian is problematic here and affects the overall presentation of his lines. In a couple of entrances he even sounds a little flat in his tone. Barber inflects her responses dramatically and uses her voice effectively within the dramatic purpose of the text. The aria Gelosia spietata Aletto opens with a rhythmic and exciting orchestral introduction that is followed by a beautiful opening phrase by Barber. The orchestra here doubles her scales with precise inflection. Again, Barber’s fioritura is thrilling and to be commended, especially for her attention to historical performance practice. This aria expresses the lovely acoustic of the recording and the Da capo brings some absolutely luscious moments from Barber, especially by the contrast in her pianissimo singing and the, all at once moments, of chest register.

Acte III, scène 6 brings Alceste’s aria La dove gli occhi io giro which opens with a lovely introduction with solo violin that continues in responds to Barber’s vocal statements. The clavicembalo rhythmically defines the triumvirate of sound and this polyphonically inspired aria becomes one of the memorable tracks on this CD; not for the difficulty or intensity of the music, but for its inherent simplicity and remarkably subtle moments of just complete musicality between this collaboration of superb artists.

To contrast Handel, we return to Hasse’s Cleofide and are presented with the Sinfonia from Acte I, which begins with an Allegro assai. The lower extremities of the orchestra are featured here with oscillating 16th note passages in the violins. The juxtaposed transition to minor for a momentary thrill is notable for Hasse. The brass is well-balanced here but could have perhaps been a little poignant in its contributions to this piece. The Andante that follows has lovely drawn out baroque inflections and the clavicembalo is well-balanced with the strings. Some of the inner orchestral sections could be a little more projected here to take the pronounced treble to a more rounded medium. Because this music tends to be melodically based the acoustic can tend to be drowned by high resonances allowing the mids and lows to be lost.

The Sinfonia ends with a tri-part Minuetto-Presto-Minuetto. The presto was well approached by Olivier Fortin yet again the inner voices of the Minuetto could have been slightly more pronounced, especially the corni. This was a lovely introduction to Cleofide’s aria Se mai turbo il tuo riposo, Barber sings with a beautiful, lush tone and affective lyric phrases. She uses a colourful palate of voice shades and in each phrase she uses a new and fresh approach to her text, even in the Da Capi.

The CD returns to Handel with excerpts from the opera Riccardo Primo (1727). The Ouverture begins with a Largo in regal dotted rhythms with doubled treble parts in the fagotto, oboe, and traverso. Again, I would have liked this section to be more pronounced here, as it tends to get lost in the acoustic. The following Allegro is polyphonically based in a pseudo three-voice fuga. The orchestral sections are well balanced and each entry is given appropriate attention. There is a question/answer moment in which the fagotto and oboe are featured and is quite lovely; making me want to hear these instruments even more clearly within the aforementioned tracks.

Act II, scène I opens with Pulcheria’s recitativo accompagnato, Ah, padre! Ah, Cielo! Barber eloquently approaches the text with precision and dramatic inflection. Her aria, Quel gelsomino, che imperla il prato which she opens with a light and fiery sound. Barber’s mezzo is like a kaleidoscope of colour. She can in one instance produce a bright yellow shade and then at once descend into the deepest red. The true mark of an artist who can use their voice technically and artistically within a repertoire that is imbued with difficulty is one that can use those elements to create drama and bring a character to life, even on a CD. Barber is such an artist.

In Scène IV, Pulcheria’s aria L’Aquila altera conoscere i figli is constructed of a strong running-bass foundation. The moving bass is an elegant compliment to Pulcheria’s melody. Barber treats this with grace and her attention to phrasing, even though, the coloratura is noteworthy. The B Section shows her artistry as she employs some lovely terraced effects and uses a lighter toned sound to contrast the fuller sound of the previous section. Again, the Italian is well-enunciated and inflected with pure legato through consonants and vowels. She never lets the text affect the application of her phrasing and legato, but rather uses the latter to express that text more fully and artistically.

The final excerpt is from Handel’s Admeto (1727), and we are treated to Alceste’s aria from Act I, scène 3, Luci care, addio, posate. Barber takes time with these phrases and the rests are, as is sometimes forgotten, as important as sound. This aria, that in a way resembles Cleopatra’s V’Adoro Pupile (from Giulio Cesare), uses periodic rests for dramatic purpose. There is a lovely section with the traverso in duet with the voice that is moving and elegant. Barber’s rich mezzo is well-complimented by the higher tones of the obbligato.

This CD is a must have for any Handel aficionado, or anyone who is interested in historical performance practice. The vocal performance of Kimberly Barber is worth having, if just to listen to a singer who can complete the difficult tasks of Handel’s writing and make it beautiful. The Arion orchestra is a competent and supportive group of musicians and the ensemble is noteworthy.

Mary-Lou P. Vetere, 2007

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