Ann Hallenberg / Il Pomo d'Oro

Carnevale 1729

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Where to begin listing the virtues of this gorgeous double-CD release by mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg? Perhaps with the unique programming concept, re-creating the operas staged during Carnival season in the year 1729 in Venice, a special year because all the big stars of Italian opera had come back home after disagreements with their impresario, Handel, in England. The arias, written for the likes of the castrato Senesino and the soprano Faustina Bordoni, have all the technical fireworks of the Handel operas of the 1720s that have gained popularity. And consider that the music is virtually unknown, with much of it here receiving its premiere on recordings; much of the research was done by Hallenberg herself, along with her husband, with performers once again leaving musicology in the dust. Is it second-order opera? Hardly, and here you can rely on the opinion of Handel himself, who dropped in to hear this remarkable stretch of music and took some of it back to London to make pastiches out of it. You can stop in anywhere for vocal heroics, but sample one of the more melodic pieces, such as "Bel piacer saria d'un core", from Semiramide riconosciuta of Nicola Porpora, Haydn's teacher. The program is intelligently put together, with most of the pieces grouped together by individual opera, but two altogether fascinating selections from Gianguir, by the all-but-unknown Geminiano Giacomelli framing the arias from Giuseppe Maria Orlandini's Adelaide on CD 1. The sharp, sensitive orchestral work of Il Pomo d'Oro under Stefano Montanari is a major attraction. And last, but certainly not least, is the voice of Hallenberg herself, arguably at its absolute peak, easily tackling arias across a wide range, delivering plenty of power in the big runs and yet entering into each character. Oh, yes, Pentatone's audiophile-quality sound, recorded at the entirely appropriate Villa San Fermo in Lonigo, is superb. Sit back and enjoy, says Pentatone's little logo. Indeed: this is one of those rare recordings that breaks entirely new ground yet remains a pure pleasure, fully realized on its own terms.

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