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It’s a piquant coincidence that Handel’s 1741–2 Dublin season, which saw the premiere of Messiah, also included concert performances of Acis and Galatea, the first theatrical work in English he had ever set, and his ‘new serenata’ Hymen (actually a much altered version of Imeneo), the last theatrical work in Italian he would ever set. Acis was variously described as a masque, a pastoral entertainment and a serenata; a confusion that perhaps arose because, if Gilbert Blin’s booklet notes are correct, ‘Handel intended Acis and Galatea to be performed before an audience, but not staged like a drama.’ Blin speculates that the original 1718 performance at Cannons possibly took place outdoors, where the gardens’ exotic water features could be incorporated into the poignant scene where the murdered Acis is transformed into a ‘bubbling fountain’.

This excellent O’Dette and Stubbs set certainly captures the work’s beguiling pastoral charms, as well attending sensitively to its gentle undertow of tragedy. Aaron Sheehan is winning as the hapless Acis, Douglas Williams’ Polyphemus looms threateningly and Teresa Wakim is a tender Galatea, especially touching in ‘Heart, Seat of sweet Delight’. Even the minor roles of Damon and Coridon are given depth in thoughtful performances by Jason McStoots and Zachary Wilder respectively. With outstanding instrumental contributions too, plus the bonus item of Handel’s 1707 continuo cantata ‘Sarei troppo felice’, fetchingly sung by soprano Amanda Forsythe, the set rivals William Christie’s exquisite 1999 Erato recording, if not quite displacing it in my affections.

Fabio Biondi’s Imeneo is actually the first recording of that 1742 serenata Hymen, a radically revised and shortened version of the 1740 ‘operetta’ (Handel’s term) Imeneo, which had flopped in London (and was recorded by Andreas Spering for CPO in 2002). The cuts to the libretto leave a few scenes virtually incomprehensible, but in altering the relationship between Tirinto and Rosmene Handel turned a rather inconsequential comedy into a more troubled, tragic affair. The ‘new’ music he introduced (taken from his earlier works) enhanced this shiftof tone, most movingly in the climactic ‘Per le porta del tormento’ (from Sosarme), one of Handel’s greatest love duets, which heralds the lovers’ anguished final parting. It’s sung here with intense, spine-tingling fervour by Ann Hallenberg (Tirinto) and Monica Piccinini (Rosmene), the record’s outstanding soloists, although bass Fabrizio Beggi (Argenio) also impresses. Biondi’s strings-only Europa Galante offer nimble, elegant support, which ensures that, whatever the plot’s absurdities, Handel’s enchanting music will hold the listener spellbound.

Graham Lock Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing