For the 1727 season -- the waning days of opera's popularity in London -- transplanted German composer George Frederick Handel wrote no less than three operas for the English capital's stage. Tolomeo, rè d'Egitto was the last and least enthusiastically received of them. Unsuccessfully revived in 1730 and then again in 1733, Tolomeo was unperformed for the next 200 years, and even now, it remains one of Handel's least performed and recorded operas. Prior to this Archiv set, only a 1995 Vox recording of the work with Richard Auldon Clark leading the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra had been released in the digital era.
Given the infrequency of Tolomeo recordings, Archiv's seems unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. Led here by Alan Curtis with a firm hand and a keen sense of drama, the work is an Egyptian romance set in the Ptolemaic dynasty centered on the standard operatic tropes of love, power, revenge, and -- because theirs was a more optimistic age than ours -- a happy ending. In addition to Curtis' deft direction, what brings Handel's nearly 300-year-old opera to life is the first-rate cast's full-bodied singing.
Highest honors must go to Ann Hallenberg's magnificent Tolomeo. With her strong, flexible, and highly expressive voice, she can portray the full range of the Egyptian king's emotions from the pathetic in her Arioso in Act I to ecstatic in the closing ensemble of Act III. Hallenberg is equally impressive in her duets with the splendid Karina Gauvin as Tolomeo's wife Seleuce, particularly in their tender and heartbreaking pair of duets late in Act II. Nearly as fine are Anna Bonitatibus' resolute Elisa and Pietro Spagnoli's virile and vile Araspe, and, of course, the lively and lovely accompaniments by Il Complesso Barocco. Recorded in bright, detailed digital sound, this Tolomeo should be heard by anyone who enjoys Handel's operas.