I own two superficially very different recordings of this lovely opera and thought it might be helpful to compare them, as both star the reigning Handel diva of their day. It was this role which introduced many to "La Stupenda" and Renée Fleming has made a point of keeping Handel in the forefront of her repertoire despite her forays into verismo.
To label the 1962 Decca recording "grossly inauthentic" is a bit rich; people who dismiss it on the grounds of being old-fashioned remind me of those who claim sex was invented in the 1960's. Obviously there a few cuts and there is little HIP practice - how could there be? - but the spirit is right and it is blessed with an array of stellar voices accompanied most sensitively and intelligently by Bonynge directing a gorgeous-sounding LSO. Nonetheless, Christie's 1999 live account at the Paris Opera for Erato was also a great occasion and offers a complete, wholly satisfying, historically informed performance by the best Handel singers to be found at that time. The playing of Les Arts Florissants avoids period scratchiness and is in fact very elegant. The interesting thing about Christie's direction is that he confounds those who expect a period performance to be all Tiggerish bounce; he permits some daringly leisurely tempi to accommodate the creamy effulgence and emotive indulgence of Fleming's Alcina. This brings the two recordings, separated by nearly forty years, closer together in style than you might have thought.
I love both and wouldn't be without either - although I admit to succumbing more readily to the vocal glamour of the older cast than to the more sprightly delivery of Christie's performance. Both recordings feature singers with immensely characterful voices rich of tone, capable of hitting top notes without nudging, negotiating intricate runs without smudging and producing authentic trills without fudging.
The surprise of the earlier recording for me was the strength and assertiveness of Teresa Berganza's lower register in combination with wholly secure, shining top notes. She is the singer who most outshines her counterpart, good though Susan Graham is. In showpiece arias - of which there are so many in this miraculous opera - Berganza delivers more glamour than Graham who can sound - well - just ordinary, especially in the lower reaches of her voice around the repeated G. Try "Verdi prati" to hear what I mean; Berganza is far more alluring and voluptuous of tone here. Elsewhere, Graham is more satisfying and always firm and musical. Neither has a huge voice but I find Berganza more thrilling and overtly involving. There is little to separate the virtuosity of Kathleen Kuhlmann and Monica Sinclair as Bradamante; both are mightily impressive and convincing in what is for most of the opera a travestito role, as Bradamante is disguised as her own brother.
Both Sutherland and Fleming are every inch divas; the lower Baroque pitch helps the latter sound more at ease given the effulgence of her creamy voice, whereas the higher pitch helps Sutherland shine in her true Fach. It is a great bonus to have celebrated singers such as Mirella Freni and Ezio Flagello is supporting roles; I like the extra heft Flagello brings to the role of Melisso with his treacly bass, whereas Naouri is more refined, if a tad bland. Both Graziella Sciutti and Natalie Dessay sing Morgana with distinction, but again, I find the older singer more winning, charming and vulnerable.
The clincher for some will be the provision of a 50 minute bonus of excerpts from "Giulio Cesare" recorded in 1963, starring Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Margreta Elkins and the formidable Monica Sinclair once again - plus one unfortunate aria from windy, tremulous tenor Richard Conrad as Sesto. Sutherland is a bit droopy but her diction is passable while her singing and ornamentation as sheer vocalisation are extraordinary.
"Alcina" and "Giulio Cesare" must be at the top of any list of Handel's best operas, being brimful of lovely melody and striking drama, so to have most of one and some of the other sung so superbly makes the earlier Decca recording very attractive but Christie's full version offers the obvious attraction of having three modern divas in a modern edition complying with the best of HIP practice. I want to be able to hear both these glamorous sets, as the mood takes me.
Forgive the estate agent headline. Ralph Moore's comprehensive review of this and the Christie recording say almost all there is to say. I have both recordings and only want to say what a great recording the Bonynge is. One can place the voices and there is a real sense of the physical location in which this version was recorded.
Fortunately I do not need to choose which I prefer, but the recorded sound here is definitely a point in its favour.
Although some 50 year old, this remains one of the most accomplished and attractive of all opera recordings. The verve and passion of the music breaks through the potentially stultifying conventions of Baroque opera, thanks to the vigorous control of the conductor. Richard Bonynge never allows the course of action to flag, and captures the rise and fall of the drama despite the inevitable sequences of da capo arias. The arias and recitatives are full of striking, sometimes electrifying, characterization, a potential dynamically realized by the extraordinary array of singers who impersonate the characters with real passion. The level of lyric accomplishment is outstanding from all the soloists involved, and presents a standard of achievement that would be nearly impossible to find today. Sutherland, Sciutti, Freni, Berganza, Sinclair, Alva, Flagello were in their prime, and all present a schooling in bel canto technique that is breathtaking. It is no wonder that the 1950s and 1960s have come to represent a golden age of singing. Added to this is the beautiful orchestral playing, and an undiminished lucidity and immediacy of sound. Brilliant and vivid, dramatic and concise, this is simply an outstanding recording.