Beauty in every note by Handel's mentor

La Liberta Contenta | University of Birmingham
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The Independent Culture

At times in Italian Baroque opera, one wonders if names matter at all - so long as the arias melt, the recitative shifts, and the right mood is captured. Need one worry who's who in, say, Handel's Radamisto, given that the outline relationships are all quite clear?

At times in Italian Baroque opera, one wonders if names matter at all - so long as the arias melt, the recitative shifts, and the right mood is captured. Need one worry who's who in, say, Handel's Radamisto, given that the outline relationships are all quite clear?

The same could be said for Agostino Steffani's La Liberta Contenta (1693), newly staged by Barber Opera at the University of Birmingham. So what that Pericles, seen here disguised in Sparta with his mistress Aspasia, perished of the plague 15 years before his wayward nephew Alcibiades fled there? Alcibiades' legendary profligacy is used to point up a moral: that marital loyalty works - a warning to Princess Sophie, gadabout wife to the future George I.

It was Steffani (1654-1728) who introduced young Handel to Hanover. You sense his influence on his junior at every turn - in the fluid recitative, the shortish yet beautifully turned arias, several carefully placed duets and the stylish orchestration.

In these three performances, warmly conducted by Colin Timms, there was beauty in just about every note. It's bizarre that only one of Steffani's six collaborations with Ortensio Mauro, Henrico Leone has been recorded. Steffani wrote 20 or so operas in all; given all the ingredients here - the quality of string playing, the instrumental solos, some impeccable harpsichord and archlute continuo and the entire cast, Hyperion could record this tomorrow and it would be a hit.

The wood-clad acoustic at the Barber Institute - famous for its paintings - is pleasing and true: the obbligati - recorder, oboe, even bassoon - were invariably melting. True, Ian Sommerville's set constrained the stage action; finicky steps and needless curtaining befuddled entries and exits. There was also some murky lighting, and costume designer Terry Frances Parr contrived to put five different eras of garb onstage together.

What Robin Tebbutt's production got right was simplicity. Timms took some recitative rather slowly. Unfazed, Deborah Norman - as good in mezzo as soprano range (Alcibiades was written for a top castrato), with a Sarah Connolly-like flair and timbre, and one of the most striking young voices I've heard in ages. Alcibiades' slow final aria was simply breathtaking.

Her equal in phrasing was tenor Christopher Lemmings's Pericles: Lemmings sang Mozart's Tito for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, and one can see why. Benjamin Bland's characterful buffo would furnish Figaro with a spirited Antonio; Mark Wilde's Lysander produced a lovely tone. Ruth Peel's Agis sang her Act II aria gorgeously; and Natalie Clifton-Griffiths' Timaea revealed a voice with great potential.

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