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Handel's Tolomeo of 1728 came at a time of difficulties for the Royal Academy of Music; as a result of internal dissensions many thought that opera would not last another season. Some have seen the pared-down structure of this particular opera as a direct response; Dorothea Schroder says in the accompanying notes, "through the rigour of its action and arias freed from all unnecessary trappings, Tolomeo may be said to represent the essence of Handel as a music dramatist".

As expected from Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco, it's a first rate recording. The cast of five characters are admirably performed by an excellent cast; the delightful Ann Hallenberg and Karina Gauvin, plus previously unknown to me mezzo Anna Bonitatibus; Romina Basso, one of my favourites of the moment, gets a lesser role, as does bass Pietro Spagnoli.

Packaged in double jewel case with booklet containing libretto with English, French & German translations, plus brief notes and synopses in the same languages.
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on 6 April 2008
Following their very highly succesful 'Floridante' and 'Rodelinda' recordings on Archiv, Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco now give us this rarity.
Tolomeo is one of the five operas written for Senesino and the rival sopranos Cuzzoni and Bordini.
They had exceptional talents and to cope with the technical demands for today's singers is not easy. But what a team we have here!
As usually (and luckily), Alan Curtis prefers a mezzo soprano to a countertenor for the part of Senesino, and Ann Hallenberg is very successful in it.
She does not have the individuality of Mijanovic, but the latter seems to be an acquired taste for many Handelians. Hallenberg is more 'middle of the road' but a very accomplished singer. She is incredibly moving in her aria 'Torna sol per un momento' which concludes the first act. Another highlight is the third act 'Stille amare', in which Tolomeo thinks he is poisoned, but of course this is not the case.
The two prima donnas are sung by Anna Bonitatibus (Elisa) and Karina Gauvin (Seleuce) and their performances are a delight from start to finish. They have each two arias in every act, and there is not a weak number to find.
Which one can I pick? Seleuces 'Fonte amichi' in the first act with the flute obligato, or her act two 'Dite, che fa, dov'è' which eventually becomes a duet (in echo) with Tolomeo? Elisa's 'Quanto è felice' in act two with the exciting high notes in the da capo ornamentation, or her vengeance aria 'Ti pentirai, crudel' in act three?
We have two new Handel sopranos in the league of Lynne Dawson, Rosemary Joshua and Joyce Di Donato!
The two other minor characters are Alessandro, sung by Romina Basso and the villian Araspe, taken by Pietro Spagnoli. Their contribution is no less than stylish, but they are somewhat overshadowed by the three stars.

Each act is on one cd, and no compressing here as in Curtis' Lotario on DHM. Translations of the notes and libretto in English, French and German as can be expected from Archiv.

If you love 'Giulio Cesare', 'Orlando' and 'Alcina', you will certainly like 'Tolomeo'. The music is first rate Handel.

According to information on the web, 'Ezio', 'Alcina' and 'Siroe' will be next to be recorded by Alan Curtis. I just can not wait to hear those, hopefully with Bonitatibus and Gauvin.
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on 15 July 2008
This recording has had universally strong reviews, so I write this with a certain degree of trepidation.

However, I am going to stick my proverbial neck above the parapet by some distance and disagree with the overwhelming majority. For me it just doesn't quite work.

My first encounter with Tolomeo was a radio recording (broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as I recall) of a live opera house performance conducted by Howard Arman, with the countertenor Axel Kohler in the title role. Listening to this recording I was struck by the attractiveness of the music in general and in particular the quality of some of the scenes, especially the closing stages of act two.

As a result I eagerly awaited a commercial recording and we finally have one.

I have to say that this set is, at least on paper, ideal in every way. Cast and orchestra are both in fine form. The sound quality is superb. In contrast to Arman's radio recording there are no coughs and annoying stage noises here. No hiss from my analogue radio. No dreary Radio 3 commentary. The problem is there is also no real excitement!

Alan Curtis's direction is they key issue for me - it's all a bit too moderate and safe. Tempi are careful throughout and I longed for more variety. The fast music generally lacks real pace, energy and "oomph". Indeed, at no stage during the 3 hours or so did the fast music truly grab my attention, although the allegro sections of the overture and Araspe's aria in act two are both quite effective.

Some of the slow music drags its heels a bit too. For example, the gorgeous aria that closes act one really needs a little more pace injected into it. The glorious closing stages of act two don't exactly fizz either.

I also felt there was a real lack of poetry in the slow music - it all seems a bit heavy-handed and lacking delicacy/grace.

While the cast is perfectly good, no one really stands out for me. Araspe in particular sounds a bit too nice for this villainous role.

Ultimately, I can't complain too much - and ironically I can certainly recommend the set without reservation to hardcore Handel opera lovers. However, I was left with that same feeling that a woman might experience when she marries a "nice" bloke - all very safe and secure, but where's the frisson, the "x-factor", the excitement?

If this is your idea of musical nirvana then clearly we will have to agree to differ on this occasion. However, I invite other listeners to add their own review and shoot me down in flames as appropriate. My finger is hovering over the "ejector seat" button in readiness.....
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on 30 November 2008
'Tolomeo' is the last of the operas written for the rival sopranos Cuzzoni and Bordoni. After this opera, Handel's current company broke up and all went their separate ways. Richard Auldon Clark recorded the opera on the Vox label some years ago with some decent soloists but chopped the score about a bit and added in some unnecessary orchestral pieces. On the whole this was nevertheless a decent version of the piece until Alan Curtis came along with something much better!

Curtis' 'Tolomeo' is more complete and has, on balance, a better cast and is certainly more compellingly conducted and played. Ann Hallenberg puts in another flawless star turn in the title role and it is not her fault that Tolomeo is not exactly one of the strongest roles ever written for Senesino! This time it was Cuzzoni's turn to play the faithful wife and Karina Gauvin is just lovely as Seleuce (although to be fair, Brenda Harris on the earlier recording also has some very good moments). Her rival Elisa is excitingly sung by Anna Bonitatibus in warm mezzo-ish tones - her 'Quell'onda che si frange' is fantastic! Another favourite mezzo soprano of mine, Romina Basso does much with the small role of Alessandro and Pietro Spagnoli gets the rather thankless role of the villianous bass Araspe.

This is a terrific recording and really surpasses the earlier one - highly recommended.
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The libretto of Tolomeo is not as weighty as one might think at a first glance. As well as Ptolemy there is a (non-singing) Cleopatra involved, but these are not the most famous holders of these names. There is a dispute over the succession to the kingship of Egypt, but don't expect anything on the lines of Don Carlo. The issue is resolved in a remarkably, nay ridiculously, peaceable manner as part of a comprehensively happy ending of the kind that London audiences preferred. As for the rest, it is about as average an opera book as I know, with princes and princesses disguised, in the seemingly foolproof way, as shepherds and shepherdesses, and a gratifyingly wide gulf between fierce declarations of intent followed by astonishingly mild and tolerant actions.

Despite all this, Tolomeo lasts for two and a half hours, which is twice as long as La Boheme does. Myself, I would not want it shorter by a single second. There are very few special dramatic effects, mainly restricted to the penultimate scene when Ptolemy drinks what he thinks is poison but which turns out only to be some kind of micky finn, in line with the overall tone of the action. Nor is there much fancy orchestration. You will hear some horn tone in the overture but little or none later, one aria has flutes obbligati and another has a harp or theorbo, and that's about it. The orchestration is for strings and very little else, and I find that no more of a hardship than I do in Handel's concerti grossi, or in Beethoven's string quartets, or in Messiah itself. The truth is that Handel does not try to make this libretto and this story into something they are not. He knows better than to whip up ersatz drama, and instead lets the river of his purely musical inspiration run smoothly and placidly through one low-key incident after another. I followed the action conscientiously with the libretto, but in fact with each successive hearing I found I was taking less notice of it because the music is so marvellous. Nothing as long as Tolomeo could realistically be described as a secular cantata, but for all the real action there is in it that title would do very well. Handel can strike like a thunderbolt, as Mozart said, and there are any number of audacious effects in his oratorios let alone his stage dramas, but what Tolomeo actually put me in mind of was the Bach cantatas that I have been collecting recently.

Bach's style is contemplative with very little to it by way of a dramatic dimension, but where Handel seems to me to resemble him in this work is in letting his own limitless musical invention run without special tricks. The music of each aria is of course appropriate to the sentiments expressed, but you could say that of the Bach cantatas. As for characterisation, the truth is that I soon lost interest in who was who. The music was what kept my attention just as music. There are three alto parts, one soprano and a solitary male voice in the bass role of Araspe. One very striking difference between the styles of these two great Saxon masters is in their treatment of the voice. With Bach, as with Wagner, the inspiration goes primarily into the instrumental parts, but where Wagner is actually very considerate (whatever they tell you) in his vocal writing, Bach can give his singers parts that are extremely difficult because of their instrumental manner. In Handel's vocal writing not only do the voices predominate, the idiom fits the human voice like a glove. There is no choral work in the ordinary sense in Tolomeo, but the final number is, as in Siroe, a choral ensemble. There sound to be a lot more than five voices here, but I can find no further information in the liner.

All the soloists perform admirably in my own opinion. Nor have I any problems with the direction or the instrumentalists, as presumably will surprise nobody when these are the eminent specialists that they are. Likewise the recorded quality is clear and proportionate. The liner booklet is of the thorough and polyglot variety that we are accustomed to with operatic issues of this kind, and the English translation of the essay, by Stewart Spencer, is in genuine English, unlike many even now and apparently very unlike the strange English of Mr Handel himself, as recorded in many humorous reminiscences. Tolomeo is the mellifluous and charming Handel, familiar indeed from elsewhere but rarely for two and a half hours at a stretch without dramatic surprises. The two and a half hours are spread over three discs, one per act, and this seems to me much more satisfactory than trying to squeeze the production on to two cd's.

It seems that Tolomeo was never heard by human ear between 1733 and 1938. I have now heard it 5 or 6 times. This has been my chance, living in the technological era that I do. Applauda ognuno il nostro fato.
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on 7 September 2009
This opera was unfamiliar to me but I can highly recommend this disk set. The singing is lovely and it is packed full of wonderful arias. This is "easy listening" meant in the most complimentary way.
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