Handel: Alcina
Alan Curtis / Il Complesso Barocco

*Editor’s Choice: September
Alan Curtis and his cast for Alcina, led by the brilliant Joyce DiDonato, bring such theatrical richness and linguistic precision to a new CD set it’s hard to believe this was a studio effort and not the culmination of a lengthy performance run.

Here are characterizations of astonishing range and subtlety, with confrontation scenes that sizzle. At the center of this first-rate cast, DiDonato makes each of Alcina’s arias a beautifully shaped emotional moment, from the untroubled “Dì, cor mio,” in which Handel’s short phrases and DiDonato’s perfect trill give the effect of a happily purring kitten, to the final aria “Mi restano le lagrime,” for which the singer has drained all femininity and sensuality from her voice, leaving only an intense, tormented thread to shape the jagged and harsh vocal line.

In between, DiDonato relishes the character’s contradictions, showing a variety of vocal colorsfor Alcina’s sorcery scene and offering a deeply felt rendition of the great accompanied recitative before the haunted and obsessive “Ombre pallide.” In the internalized, tormented “Ah! mio cor,” with it’s palpitating and fitful accompaniment, the singer suggests outrage, hurt and bewilderment, framed by startling cadenzas for the drawn-out cry on the initial “Ah!”

– Judith Malafronte, Opera News, September 2009

Here mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato brings firebrand fioritura (vocal embellishment), impecably naturalistic recitative, and an inimitable everywoman pathos to the soprano title-role.Rejected and powerless in Act III, her ‘Mi restano le lagrime’ displays a vulnerability and candour sufficient to make another performer’s Alcina of 2003 (with Les Arts Florissants) appear as blowsy as a B-movie vamp.

– Anna Picard, BBC Music, June 2009

Since 1962, other recordings have shown up…but this new performance may trump them all. It is the first to use a mezzo as Alcina instead of the usual soprano, and by adhering to Baroque concert pitch, A=415, there’s no strain of note. In addition, using a somewhat heavier voice with a darker tone (and superb diction) we fully understand both Alcina’s menace and allure. Of course, without the right mezzo it would be for nought, but Joyce DiDonato here is just grand, singing with staggering accuracy, better expressiveness than all the competition, great sensuality and insinuation when called for, and true viciousness when angered. A confused sorceress-in-love, Alcina is multi-faceted and DiDonato paints the complete picture; her despondency makes you feel for her.

– Robert Levine, Classicstoday.com, June 2009

Recording of the month:
Joyce DiDonato, who has made an extraordinary name for herself internationally, here gives an astonishing portrayal of the sorceress. You can take the beauty of her voice for granted: her entrance aria, Di’, cor mio is voluptuous and fulsome, a real depiction of the infatuation that comes with love, and to match it DiDonato sings with rich, creamy tone that is quite marvellous. There is more to her assumption than just beauty, though: the portrayal changes with the character. She captures venom and hysteria for the dramatic arias that accompany Alcina’s steady realisation that she is losing her powers, and her final aria, Mi restano le lagrime, drips with overwhelming poignancy without losing its beauty. Perhaps her greatest moment, however, is Ombre pallide, the aria that ends Act 2, when Alcina calls to the spirits who she can sense around her but are now refusing to listen. The first run of the aria carries a mood of quiet desperation, while the da capo is full of understated terror. DiDonato owns this territory and in this recording she has made herself the greatest Alcina on disc.

– Simon Thompson, Music Web International, May 2009

Editor’s Choice: “Joyce DiDonato: a superb Alcina”
This could well be the Alcina we’ve been waiting for. From the outset Curtis sets the tone – vibrant, alert and alive. He is blessed with a luxury cast of singers, led by the imperious Joyce DiDonato…this Alcina is polished and passionate, the standard of da capo ornamentation unsurpassed.

Technically, DiDonato is superb: her Alcina is a complex, feminine creature, vain and vindictive– listen to her spine-tingling performance of Ombre pallide and the recitative that precedes it in Act 2.

– Julie Anne Sadie, Gramophone, May 2009

This pleasing reading of Handel’s fascinating 1735 masterpiece proves, among other things, there’s nothing Joyce DiDonato can’t do well. Here, the ace mezzo, blogger and photographer blazes through the soprano title role’s rewarding challenges – six splendid arias, a fabulous trio and yards of well-pointed recitative – while lending the sorceress crystalline sound and a complex, affecting psychological profile.

– David Shengold, TIME OUT NY, May 2009

L’ambitus réduit d’Alcina, qui plafonne, fugacement, au la 4, ne pose aucun problème au mezzo aigu et souple de l’Américaine. Evidemment, il ne suffit pas de posséder les notes pour convaincre. Sans parler du métal et des couleurs, c’est l’engagement, l’abandon – en vérité le don suprême – qui font toute la différence. J’ai déjà exprimé ici même mon admiration pour Joyce DiDonato louant sa technique, éblouissante, son tempérament et une imagination si rare et pourtant essentielle. Elle incarne avec sensualité la beauté lasse d’Alcina (« Di cor mio, quanto t’amai ») et ses reprises ne déçoivent pas (« Si son quella », « Ah ! mio cor, schernito sei ! »), miracles d’invention et d’audace, personnelles et excitantes, comme on aimerait en entendre plus souvent dans ce répertoire. C’est là un art infiniment précieux et qui vaut à lui seul le détour.

– Bernard Schreuders, Forum Opera, April 2009

Precise in rhythm and stylish in ornamentation, this is an Alcina for Baroque purists who take Handel’s operas seriously rather than those who see it as a tune-filled vehicle for star prima donnas such as Joan Sutherland or Renée Fleming. Here Joyce DiDonato sings the marvellous title role with dramatic fire and unfailing musicality..

– Rupert Christiansen, Daily Telegraph, April 2009

The new recording is interesting partly for the casting of a mezzo-soprano in the title role. Anyone wondering about this aspect should worry no further: Joyce DiDonato triumphs completely. Her six solo numbers are phenomenally well worked-out, mixing an intimate and personal response to the text with the technical assurance to spin out long lines and operate in a tessitura that takes her slightly out of her usual comfort zone. There isn’t a better Alcina on record.

– Dominic McHugh, MusicalCriticism.com, April 2009

Avec l’enregistrement réalisé en studio par Alan Curtis pour Archiv, en septembre 2007, nous tenons probablement, disonsle d’emblée, l’Alcina la mieux chantée de la discographie. Vocalité, style, affects, compréhension des caractères, rien ne manque et la distribution, fait rare, ne comporte aucun point faible.

Curtis est de ces chefs qui aiment prendre des risques et en faire prendre aux chanteurs. En apprenant qu’il envisageait de confier le rôle-titre à Joyce DiDonato, nous avions été nombreux, admirateurs de la dame, à nous demander si elle pourrait, avec son mezzo d’argent, se couler dans le moule du soprano. Le pari est gagné: vocalement, musicalement et dramatiquement, sa performance est d’une prodigieuse finesse. La cantatrice nous fait en effet partager les émotions de l’héroïne au fil d’un portrait d’une richesse et d’une variété rares, là où ses consoeurs ont souvent tendance à privilégier le profil “vaincu” du personnage. DiDonato sait se montrer révoltée et, quand il le faut, dégager une aura de puissance et de séduction bienvenue (un “Ah! mio cor” d’anthologie).

– Philippe Gelinaud, Opéra, April 2009

The 250th anniversary of the composer’s death will be expensive for Handelians if this fabulously well-sung account of his great “magic” opera of 1735 is a taste of things to come. Curtis scores with his hand-picked cast and an approach to tempo that avoids extremes. Some of the vocal decoration of aria repeat sections sounds overelaborate, but its execution cannot be faulted. Joyce DiDonato’s velvety, sensuous mezzo is a surprising choice for Handel’s majestically tormented sorceress, darker of voice than Sutherland …She rises magnificently to the challenges of Alcina’s great, wrenching scenes of despair. This is the must-have Alcina on disc.

– Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times (London), March 2009

DiDonato’s sorceress Alcina proves a triumph of dramatic fire.

– Geoff Brown, Daily Times (London), March 2009