Composers: Handel
Compositions: Opera arias
Performers: Lucy Crowe s, Mary Bevan s, London Early Opera/Bridget Cunningham
Catalogue Number: Signum SIGCD579 (2CD)

Previous recordings devoted to the repertoire of superstar Italian sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni have been well-received, but this latest, featuring Lucy Crowe as the latter and Mary Bevan as the former, may be the best of the lot. As Bridget Cunningham notes in her extensive commentary, the 18th century delighted in binary oppositions. It was only natural that Cuzzoni and Faustina should be cast as opposites and rivals, one excelling in heart-rending pathos, the other in thrilling vocal pyrotechnics. The reality was different. Both were as capable of emotional depth and flashy virtuosity as the other. Neither was there any personal animosity; their so-called rivalry was an invention of the press rival factions in each other’s fan base. Plus ça change…

Cunningham has put together a marvellous program of music by Handel and contemporaries including Vivaldi, Leo, Bononcini and many others. These arias (and just one duet, Handel’s Placa l’alma from Alessandro) are occasionally interspersed by orchestral music from the same operas. There are also numerous world premiere recordings. Following a terrific curtain-raiser in the form of a sinfonia from Pollarolo’s Ariodante, Crowe puts paid to any notion that Cuzzoni was not as capable of coloratura display as the best of them. Handel’s aria for Cuzzoni’s Cleopatra, Da tempeste il legno infranto, is electrifying – as is Crowe’s despatching of the ornamentation in the repeats. For an example of Crowe/Cuzzoni in full pathos mode, listen to the famous Falsa immagine, m’ingannasti, from Handel’s Ottone. Simply ravishing.

And Bevan/Faustina? Son prigioniera, from Porpora’s Poro, is hardly bereft of florid embellishments. But it is deeply affecting, especially when sung as sensitively and securely as it is here. Thrill seekers will however want to skip to Bevan’s frighteningly vehement, dramatic Gelosia, spietata Aletto from Handel’s Admeto.

Under Cunningham’s direction from the harpsichord, the instrumental playing of London Early Opera is just as compelling and stylish as the singing. Handel’s Queens is a vivid snapshot of 18th-century opera – and 21st-century historical performance practice at its most exciting.