Femmes handle the Old Testament Handel

Handel: Streams of Pleasure. Karina Gauvin, Marie Nicole Lemieux, Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis. Naïve, 2011.

The cheekiest CD title of the last year was probably chosen to divert the attention from the potentially least exciting artistic decision of the baroque recording universe of that same year: programming the arias from Handel’s late, English-language, chiefly Old Testament oratorios. All of the oratorios included in this CD–Belshazzar, Alexander Balus, Susanna, Judas Maccabaeus, Joseph and his Brethren, Joshua, Solomon and the two standouts, the Christian Theodora and the pagan Hercules–have been recorded in full, many more than once. Some of the set pieces live on in collections, eg. Loraine Hunt Lieberson Handel CDs would have bits from Susanna and Theodora, Sarah Connolly in Handel’s Heroes and Heroines includes pieces from Solomon and Hercules. There are many glorious CDs of Handel duets, but they are all and for a good reason either heavily Italian (Arcadian Duets, Haïm conducting; LeBlanc-Taylor Love Duets; Ciofi-DiDonato Amor e gelosia; Piau-Mingardo in Handel Opera Arias and Duets) or mostly Italian with some English items (the Joshua-Connolly Handel Duets c. by Harry Bicket). The only exclusively English oratorio CD of duets that I could find is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Handel Duets from the Great English Oratorios with the female-male duet of Carolyn Sampson and Robin Blaze.

True, not all under-recorded corners of the repertoire should be revived and conceivably a recoding of nothing but bits of Old Testament oratorios in English could be deadly dull. Streams of Pleasure avoids this successfully, and primarily thanks to the two singers engaged. Gauvin and Lemieux already have notable separate recording histories, but are also a perfect match in duets here. In addition to the six duets, Gauvin sings five and Lemieux three solo arias. Gauvin gets the Hercules, by way of Iole (we have yet to hear Lemieux’s Dejanira), and an assortment of young women and queens. Lemieux gets the Irene solos from Theodora, beside the more expected cast of warriors and kings.

The duets, however, are the main attraction. In the first Theodora duet “To thee, thou glorious son of worth”, Princess Theodora (Gauvin) sings with the secretly converted Roman soldier Didymus a lento of great simplicity, resignation and beauty. [If you remember the classic Sellars DVD, David Daniels was Didymus to Dawn Upshaw’s Theodora.] The second duet between the same characters gives the title to the CD, and is slightly more serene. “Streams of pleasure ever flowing / Fruits ambrosial ever growing” etc. sings Didymus about the after-life pleasures awaiting the blessed, and is joined by Theodora in a duet “Tither let our hearts aspire / Objects pure of pure desire… Wake the song and tune the lyre / Of the blissful holy choir.”  The imagery is very erotic, and it’s easy to forget the religious register in which it’s formally taking place.

The Judas Maccabaeus duet involves the Israelite couple who combine staccato and long florid legato in a dynamic, mournful plea, Where to now? The couple from the Joshua, however, are much happier: a warrior unites with his betrothed to the tune of “Our limpid streams with freedom flow”. Finally, in Belshazzar and Solomon duets, we have the king and the queen reuniting (“Great victor, at your feet” in the first with Cyrus and Nitocris, and “Welcome as the dawn” between Solomon and his queen).

These are all too often recorded with a counter-tenor in the role of the king or young warrior, so kudos to Il complesso barocco, Alan Curtis and the two singers, Naive and probably most of all to the “supporter of the project in every conceivable form” Donna Leon, for helping to make the duets in this non-conservative version with the two femmes with fabulously compatible yet dramatically different voices. The unabashed woman-centrism of the collection is equally embraced by the cover design (there are these gorgeous pastel pink accents all over cover art) and the lipstick-and-mirror cover photo.

The Old Testament all girl’d-up? Yes, please.

9 thoughts on “Femmes handle the Old Testament Handel

  1. I almost impulse-bought this at the Met shop last month. I’m thinking I might have to go back and less-impulsively-buy it soon, but will continue to mull. Thanks for the thorough review! Also for sharing the delightful trailer (Lemieux has such a contagious laugh!) and the interesting tidbit on Donna Leon’s involvement.

  2. I’ll echo the comment above: I enjoyed both the review and the audio/interview clip! I like both these artists and have been thinking about buying this recording – I think it’s definitely on my list now.

  3. This is an excellent selection of works for soprano and mezzo drawn from Handel’s English oratorios. Most of the duets are familiar choices, dazzlingly beautiful items from Theodora, Solomon, Belshazzar and Joshua. The solo arias go a little further afield, with selections from Joseph and his Brethren and Alexander Balus. This is a beautiful album, with one caveat: the singing style is more “operatic” than we are used to these days in recordings of Handel oratorio excerpts. This is not surprising, since both Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux are veterans of Alan Curtis’ ongoing complete Handel opera cycle, and tackle this music with a dramatic expressiveness (and a certain amount of vibrato) that is quite different from my benchmark in this repertory, the fabulous Carolyn Sampson/Robin Blaze “Great Oratorio Duets” with Nicholas Kraemer. This is not so much an objection as a matter of taste on my part, and I can’t think of any reason why anyone who loves Handel’s oratorios would not immediately rush out and buy this album. The sheer nerve of Marie-Nicole Lemieux to record “As with Rosy steps the Morn” from Theodora in the the footsteps of Lorraine Hunt’s transcendent version, and making it her own, is worth the price of the disc.

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