Arianna in Creta is one of Handel’s lesser known works – at the moment. This is bound to change as more performances of this calibre, or anywhere near it, are brought to the public. It was composed by Handel at the height of his powers in 1733, and the music is extremely varied and requires extensive virtuosic singing. The plot is not particularly obscure, and the story of Theseus and Ariadne on the island of Crete is reasonably well known, although Handel’s version adds a couple of unfamiliar characters, and Theseus, as Teseo, has to kill the warrior Tauride as well as the actual Minotaur. On this occasion, a cast which could not be bettered brought a concert performance to stunning life. The only fault was in the venue, which exacerbated the heat and humidity of the Halle summer weather, but the sweltering cast and orchestra, whose suffering instruments required extended tuning, rose above it.

Francesca Aspromonte (Alceste) and Ann Hallenberg (Teseo)
© Thomas Ziegler
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The role of Teseo was written for castrato Giovanni Carestini, and calls for florid singing of the hightest order. Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg more than rose to the challenge, exuding confidence and getting up to every trick in the embellishment book. Her first aria “Nel pugnar” practically brought down the house, involving almost non-stop coloratura but making it all seem like a walk in the park. In the more delicate “Sdegnata sei con me”, she caressed the notes with warm rounded tone, and imbued “Sol ristoro” with a golden messa di voce. “Salda quercia” and “Qui ti sfido” were both tours de force, and she had to silence applauste after the latter to let the dramatic arc continue. “Al’ fine, Amore” displayed her total attention to the text, her complete accuracy and purity of tone and careful shaping of phrases while sounding utterly spontaneous. As in every project she undertakes, Hallenberg seems to lift the game of everyone around her, always generous in sharing her easily commanded space.

The elegant but gleaming soprano tones of Karina Gauvin are always welcome, and her assumption of Arianna was perfect vocally and dramatically. “Deh! Lascia” can’t be easy to sing, with its somewhat uneasy mood, but Gauvin brought it to life with purity of tone and especially shining top notes in the B section, and throughout she delivered the sweetest singing of sad songs with understated finesse. Her “dolce” in the aria “Se nel bosco” was just that, in a heartfelt rendition. The duet for Arianna and Teseo “Mira adesso questa seno” – reminiscent of “Il voler nel fiore” from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno – displayed perfect blending of the two voices.

Karina Gauvin (Arianna)
© Thomas Ziegler

Carilda was sung by Kristina Hammarström, of quite a low tessitura, whose coloratura was a bit smudgy at first but displayed firm, dark tone when warmed up, as well as great expressiveness. Mary-Ellen Nesi launched into “Mirami” with effortless ease, demonstrating consistent accuracy, flexibility and attractive tone as Tauride, spinning off a great cadenza at the end of “Qual leon”. Up and coming soprano Francesca Aspromonte in the male role of Alceste displayed strong, clean sound, partnering beautifully with the cello in “Son qual stanco” and making the most of “Par che voglia” (a rather weaker aria than most). Young bass Andreas Wolf, outstanding in last year’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo showed again (and also in this year’s Messiah) that he has a brilliant career ahead of him, with the two small roles of Minos and der Sonne. As the former, his rendition of “Se ti condanno” displayed his really remarkable voice in a roof-raising cadenza, with huge volume but warm resonance, also displaying an appreciation of text and nuance and hitting the lowest note square-on.

The acclaimed and seemingly ubiquitous orchestra Il Pomo d’oro under Maxim Emelyanychev, who now appears to be their permament conductor, provided a sensitive reading of the score and provided faithful support to the singers throughout. A completely memorable experience all round, with no need for staging.