Handel’s dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne was started in Venice in 1709 and completed in Hanover in 1710. Like the composer's early English work Acis and Galatea, it is a masterpiece of concision and dramatic impact. As with many of his earlier works, it shares material with other pieces of the time, but that does not negate their inherent beauty nor their relevance to the narrative of the work at hand. It is disappointing to report that this performance at the Handel Festival in Halle did not fully capture its glories.

Anna Prohaska, Vittorio Ghielmi and Fulvio Bettini with Il Suonar Parlante © Stiftung Händel-Haus
Anna Prohaska, Vittorio Ghielmi and Fulvio Bettini with Il Suonar Parlante
© Stiftung Händel-Haus

The overall programme seemed to be designed as a vehicle for soprano Anna Prohaska, accompanied by Il Suonar Parlante Orchestra under the leadership of gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi. The printed programme documented only Prohaska’s arias before the interval, although there were instrumental items which were not identified.

First up was a piece by Cavalli, “O più d’ogni ricchezza”, from his take on Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne. The performance seemed to include text not available in the programme. For a 17th-century piece, it was richly orchestrated, including two recorders and a continuo harp – Margret Köll, also heard to good effect in Saul, performed in Göttingen. Prohaska showed a good dramatic interpretation for the different moods depicted and a good shake (as trills were known at the time), but her voice was somewhat thin and metallic. In Handel’s “Credete al mio dolore” (Morgana’s cello aria from Alcina) she again displayed good vocal control, dynamics and evenness of tone, if slightly suspect intonation at times, but was still lacking a certain level of vocal attractiveness. Armida’s aria from Rinaldo, “Furie terribili”, designed to emphasise her scariness and otherworldliness, had the intended dramatic effect but came off as somewhat shrill.

After the interval, the forces were joined by Fulvio Bettini, displaying all the qualities of a Handel bass: resonance, fluidity and fluency, lots of fully supported volume and dramatic ability to portray Apollo’s evolution from arrogant aggression to passionate remorse. The work itself was performed with additional orchestration – the continuo harp again and an added flute for “Spezzo l’arco” and again in “Cara pianta” – which added a certain lushness.

The cantata was performed in it its surviving form: no overture was introduced from elsewhere, but plunged straight into Apollo’s declaration that “La terra è liberata”. Prohaska did not enter until Dafne’s actual entrance, with the aria “Felicissima quest’alma” in which she managed to find some sweet spots for her voice, not previously heard. Bettini had taken his chair, but managed to react to her presence in character.

To many, the highlight of the work is Apollo’s incredibly beautiful aria “Come rosa in su la spina”, but here it was unfortunately taken too fast, sounding too aggressive and obscuring the nuances of delivery which can make it such a melting experience. This is not to say it was badly sung: Bettini produced a nice cadenza at the start of the da capo and he did full justice to Apollo’s final regretful aria.