Handel arias from: Alcina, Hercules, Agrippina, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Joshua, Ariodante, Theodora, Amadigi di Gaula, Orlando, and Rinaldo
Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano), The Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon (conductor)
Recording: Toblach, Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Gustav Mahler Saal, 03/2006
Recording time: 76’33, booklet in English, German, and French
2007 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg
DG/Archiv Reference # 477 6547
Magdalena Kozena's intriguing new CD of Handel arias, Ah! mio cor, is not a disc for the faint-hearted Handelian. As her first collaboration with Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra, the recital is nominally a "period instrument" performance, though the regrettable association of a clinical bloodlessness such an appellation often infers is nowhere to be found here - this is a very theatrical disc. That Kozena also offers selections representing a wide range of pieces variously associated with soprano or mezzo voice should only trouble the most fach-obsessed listener; such rigid designations meant far less in Handel’s own day, and the vocalism here is of a very high order indeed.
The opening title number from Alcina finds the mezzo spinning reams of round, gleaming tone - perhaps not with the purity of an Auger, or the creaminess of a Fleming, but most attractive and seductively caressing to the ear. One is then taken aback at the vehemence with which Kozena bites off the opening phrases of “Where shall I fly?” from Hercules, or the choices made in Orlando’s great mad scene, the voice here acquiring an intensity approaching a guttural quality as the warrior increasingly degenerates into a frighteningly unhinged emotional state. In such moments, there is an aggressiveness of attack and pointed use of text that some may find intermittently controversial; but such devices are never employed without clear dramatic purpose or executed with anything less than impeccable technique. Kozena knows when she needs to put the brakes on her interpretive creativity as well, rendering such a Baroque litmus test as “O! had I Jubal’s Lyre” straightforwardly, with cleanly articulated coloratura and all the requisite aural joy the piece demands. “Dopo notte” from Ariodante provides another example of pyrotechnical polish, and the thrice-familiar “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo is re-imagined with ravishing tone, if also a bit of idiosyncratic phrasing.
Such contrasts of coloration and individualization of character presentation distinguish the recital throughout. It could be validly argued that her intrinsically feminine timbre is not ideally suited to such mature Handelian “warrior males” as Orlando and Ariodante which potentially benefit from a bit more sheer vocal heft than provided here, but the mournful yearning of the adolescent Sesto is beautifully captured in as lovely a “Cara speme” as heard in memory, gracefully intoned and heartbreakingly realized.
Baroque purists may question Kozena’s dramatically assertive approach to some of these pieces, and even more revisionist listeners may disagree with a choice or two made here - but none should deny that this is one of the most interesting Handel recitals to come along in some time.
Mark Thomas Ketterson