Here it is: one of the year's most hotly anticipated opera recordings, made during an acclaimed live production in June 1999 at the Paris Opera, which more than lives up to the promise. Whether Handelian opera is still a novelty or you're already a rabid convert, this emotionally resonant, crisply played, superbly cast interpretation under William Christie and Les Arts Florissants is likely to shake up some of your ideas about the composer.
On the surface, Alcina's Ariosto-based story about a sorceress whose spell is finally broken seems like the typically absurd fare of baroque opera. But as the story unfolds in an incredible succession of some 28 arias, it's clear that these performers are reaching for deeper profundities present in Handel's music. Renée Fleming makes Alcina's huge Act II aria "Ah! mio cor" a central epiphany and turning point of the opera. It defies belief that this is Susan Graham's first baroque opera, so rich is her variety of invention and deep her musicality as Ruggiero, the one to break free of Alcina's spell, while the spun-silk soprano of Nathalie Dessay adds yet another colour to the multitude of female voices that dominate here. --Thomas May