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CD Review

Johann Adolf Hasse

Cleofide (excerpts)

  • Emma Kirkby (Cleofide)
  • Agnes Mellon (Erissena)
  • Randall K. Wong (Gandarte)
  • Derek Lee Ragin (Poro)
  • Dominique Visse (Alessandro)
  • David Cordier (Timagene)
Rheinische Kantorei
Cappella Coloniensis/William Christie
Phoenix Edition PE178 DDD 77:34
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This CD is part of a reissue series devoted to recordings by Cappella Coloniensis, a Köln-based orchestra devoted to period performance practice. This recording originally appeared on the Capriccio label, and I believe the others did as well. This is a good way to give them a new lease on life. The presentation leaves a little to be desired, though. The sung Italian texts have not been included, let alone English translations. There isn't even a detailed plot synopsis, just a few sketchy hints about what Cleofide, a three-act opera, is all about. Cappella Coloniensis itself gets several pages, however, including one translated into unidiomatic English. The booklet's cover is dominated by a photograph of a woman, her face obscured by her posture and a cloche hat, writing a postcard in some modern tea-house. The photographer, Nancy Horowitz, also receives an entire page in the booklet. It's almost as if Cleofide itself is incidental.

When Capriccio released this 1986 recording, it was on four potentially patience-taxing CDs (Capriccio 10193/6) A one-CD distillation is welcome, although not having heard the original, I can't comment whether or not Phoenix Edition has included all of the highlights. What's here is very strong, however. We get the overture, a "March of the Indians" nine arias, a duet, and the final chorus. In the title role, Emma Kirkby sings three of the arias and in the duet, where she is joined by Derek Lee Ragin's Poro, who is represented by two arias of his own. The remaining singers listed above are allotted one aria each.

As I understand it, the plot, derived from Metastasio, concerns Alexander the Great's conquest of India. Alexander has subjugated the Indian people, including their ruler Poro and his wife Cleophis. Cleophis intercedes for India and Poro by making advances to Alexander, and the opera's action involves intrigues and jealousy, resolved at the end by Alexander's magnanimity, and his granting of liberty. Apparently this was intended by analogy to flatter August the Strong, Elector of Saxonia, who controlled Poland during the early 1700s. Hasse, as August's Kapellmeister, seems to have known on which side his bread was buttered. This did not prevent him from assembling Cleofide in large part from operas he had written while abroad in Naples. After all, who would know?

Despite the prevalence of white-toned women, or white-toned men who sound like women (!), in the cast, this CD is a varied listening experience. The singers don't fail to perform with temperament, evoking the good ol" days of dueling divos and divas. Kirkby is the bright embodiment of purity and guilelessness, and Derek Lee Ragin is no less characterful, successfully depicting the conflicting emotions of the Indian ruler. With William Christie at the helm, it is not surprising that the singers and the Cappella Coloniensis go from strength to strength as the CD progresses. Kudos also go to the horn player, who appropriately is asked to point up the hunting analogy in Alessandro's aria "Cervo al bosco" (Deer in the woods).

Those who enjoy Handel's operas will enjoy this too, because stylistically, they are very close. This all-star cast gives Cleofide its all, and this is very enjoyable. If only Pheonix Edition had followed suit!

Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle