Blossoming musicians in their early twenties, like most of us, are likely to find a trip to Italy to be “a most fascinating act of self-discovery”, as D.H. Lawrence put it, but it can also be a smart career move. Handel went there in 1706 when he was twenty- one, met Important composers and patrons, stayed for three years and wrote his first masterpieces. It is to this fascinating period that the precocious soprano Julia Lezhneva here directs her remarkable artistry, bringing her own youthful perspective to products of Handel’s youth in a variety of vocal genres. In the process, she offers her own salute to Italy. “When I am in Italy, I feel extraordinarily inspired always”, she has said. The recording was made in the Giovanni Arvedi Auditorium in Cremona, the home of Antonio Stradivari.
For the future opera composer, Rome might not seem a propitious city In which to start the journey, given the Vatican’s longtime suspicions about opera. In the first decade of the eighteenth century, the situation was especially adverse, for a papal ban prohibited public performances of operas. But the ban was widely sidestepped, at least to a degree, by the Italian vernacular oratorio, which with its da capo arias was substantially Identical to opera in musical outlook, even if it differed in subject matter.
Almost by chance, then, Handel got his start as an oratorio composer with II Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and of Disillusionment) dating from the spring of 1707. That the composer’s fame preceded him is apparent from the highly placed patrons who furthered his career. One was the cardinal Benedetto Pamphllj, who wrote the libretto of II Trionfo. in which Bellezza (Beauty) is tempted to stray from virtue by Piacere (Pleasure), but ultimately resists. Ms Lezhneva sings two arias of each of these characters. Piacere’s lovely sarabande “Lascla la spina”, in which Bellezza Is reminded that life is short, is better known in recycled form as “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo, while the furious “Come nembo” is Piacere’s admission of ultimate defeat. Bellezza’s “Un pensiero nemico di pace” is a reflection on conflicting aspects of time, and In the oratorio’s serene final aria, “Tu del Ciel” Bellezza sings of her reformed soul. It is possible that the great Arcangelo Corelli himself played the aria’s violin obbligato.
The disc’s two examples of Latin church music also date from the spring of 1707 — the aria “Tecum principium” from Handel’s large-scale setting of the Vesper psalm Dixit Dominus, which was probably commissioned by another cardinal, and the Marian antiphon Salve Regina, which was performed on 19 June 1707 in the private chapel of Marquis Ruspoli’s country estate in Vignanello, north-west of Rome. “Tecum principium” elaborates with graceful triplets on King David’s divine charge to rule over enemies of the Israelites. The four- movement Salve Regina for solo soprano was probably written for the soprano Margherita Durastanti, who was then in her early twenties and went on to sing in many Handel operas, particularly in the 1720s and ’30s. Handel’s deeply expressive music for the Salve Regina is encapsulated In Its slow movements in minor keys and especially Its bold harmonies; the sprightly third movement, “Eia ergo, avvocata nostra”, supplies notable contrast and includes an organ obbligato that Handel would have played.
The autumn of 1707 brought Handel’s first Italian opera (he had written two previously in Germany, one of which is lost), Rodrigo. Performed in Florence, it was almost certainly commissioned by still another illustrious figure, Ferdinando de’ Medici. Set during the last years of Visigothic rule In Spain, Rodrigo shows signs that Handel had already absorbed elements of Italian style. In “Per dar pregio” the self-sacrificing Esilena, wife of king Rodrigo, resolves to neutralise a rebellion instigated by Florinda (with whom Rodrigo had an affair that produced a child) by ceding her husband to Florinda while remaining faithful to him. This buoyant aria includes a prominent violin obbligato that interacts harmoniously with the vocal line.
Like II Trionfo, La Resurrezione, the second of Handel’s two oratorios for Italy, functioned as a substitute for opera. Another Ruspoli commission, it received a sumptuous premiere in Rome on Easter Sunday, 8 April 1708, with Corelli leading an orchestra of at least forty-five players.
Unlike the allegorical II Trionfo, La Resurrezione is a narrative drama about the Resurrection, although it was not staged. In the oratorio’s ecstatic opening aria with trumpets and oboes, “Disserratevi, o porte dAverno”, an Angel sings dazzlingly of opening the gates of Hell and darkness being eliminated by the light of God eternal.
Agrippina was the second and last of the operas from the Italian sojourn, and the crowning achievement in terms of advancing Handel’s reputation, receiving an enthusiastic reception in Venice on 26 December 1709 with Durastanti in the title role. The story, set in Rome, is a fictional account of attempts by Agrippina to secure the throne for her son Nero and includes comic elements typical of Venetian opera. But there is nothing comic about Agrippina’s ambition or the tormenting thoughts that spur her on, as the sparse yet wild Instrumental eruptions and the rawness of the fraught vocal line make clear in her remarkable aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”. The aria, which Ms Lezhneva sings in its original version, is also unusual in making a brief reappearance following a section of recitative.
Still another genre is represented by the Italian cantata Apollo e Dafne, which Handel apparently began in Italy but completed in Hanover. Large-scale works in this form can resemble small-scale operas, and the finest of the longer cantatas, according to The Revised New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, is this charming encounter between the god Apollo and the nymph
Daphne. Grove’s high assessment is the result of Handel’s “delectable” characterisation of the nymph, not least in her beguiling first aria, “Felicissima quest’alma’,’ in which, to a lilting siciliano rhythm, Daphne foreshadows her unresponsiveness to advances from Apollo by extolling freedom from constraints of the heart. The aria could stand as an irresistible example of what the ineffable yet potent mix of youthfulness and Italy is capable of engendering.