on 4 March 2013
This is an intelligently prepared programme of music written for one of the best-known Italian prima donnas of the 18th century. Faustina (in England she was always just "Faustina") already had a European reputation when Handel brought her to London in 1726, where she sang in the first runs of his "Alessandro", "Admeto", "Riccardo Primo", "Siroe", and "Tolomeo", as well as revivals of "Floridante", "Radamisto" and "Ottone". She left to marry a then even more famous composer, Hasse, and toured Europe with him for thirty years, until she was well into her 60's. She died aged 84 in 1781.
The disc includes Handel's "Parmi che giunta in porto", a rarity that Handelians may care to notice. The booklet says it comes from "Radamisto 1720", but Handel wrote it specially for Faustina in 1727 for a revival of "Floridante" and she clearly liked it, as she sang it again in the revivals of "Radamisto" in 1728 and "Ottone" in 1730. It is a very showy aria, but then so are most of the rest here, two more by Handel, and five by Hasse, including a beautiful work he wrote in 1781 after Faustina's death.
Those who heard her said that Faustina had perfect breath control, secure intonation, and great agility in runs, interval leaps, and ornamentation. Quantz, for example, who saw her in Dresden, praised her immaculate articulation and excellent trills. The music Handel and Hasse wrote for her demands that, within a range (in Handel) of c' – a''.
Faustina sounds a hard act to follow but Vivica Genaux manages pretty well. Genaux has an agile mezzo-soprano voice (I should guess her effective range as about b flat to a'') and has obviously worked hard at these arias, most of which are extremely difficult: Handel's coloratura is much harder to sing than Rossini's. Genaux is good at runs and arpeggios, though she fakes her trills sometimes. Her breath control is less good and she has to break her lines. She also has a fast bleat which she rarely manages to switch off. This limits my pleasure, but is a matter of taste. Faustina may have had a bleat herself for all I know; Joyce DiDonato certainly does. You may simply think such a voice is "vibrant".
Overall I think Genaux gives us a good sense of some interesting music, always delightful, and sometimes moving. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes baroque opera, and indeed it would be a good introduction to the genre.
The band is Swiss, too small really, but then that's usual these days. They play accurately and a good bouncy sense of rhythm - "Parmi che giunta in porto" comes off very well at their hands. The recording is well-produced, with enough space around the voice and instruments, and a life-like balance between them.
Grumbles? I'd have liked two more arias and one less overture. Three orchestral works is too many on a vocal recital.
Comparisons? Listen to Julia Lezhneva singing Faustina's arias in "Alessandro" (her first London opera) in the recent Decca recording. Lezhneva is astoundingly good at coloratura and ornamentation – better than Genaux – and in that sense a perfect fit for what we know of Faustina; but Lezhneva is a lyric soprano with a "cool" voice, rather Joan Sutherlandish. Which colour of voice better represents Faustina? We cannot know; but the guessing is instructive and entertaining.