Renée Fleming has succeeded in bringing Handel's operatic arias to the likes of the Late Show with David Letterman, and that's all to the good. For anyone whose appetite has been whetted by her Handel disc, Sarah Connolly's Heroes and Heroines: Handel would make an ideal follow-up purchase, one that gets a a little deeper into the music than does Fleming's favorite-arias disc. Connolly, a mezzo soprano well known for Handel performances in England, offers selections from just four works: the operas Alcina and Ariodante, the sacred oratorio Solomon, and Hercules, a dramatic work that Handel himself had trouble classifying. In the words of conductor Harry Christophers, "Sarah and I had no desire just to pile together her favourite arias. We wanted to depict not only the close links between opera and oratorio in Handel's works but also equate the position of hero and heroine [two of the roles Connolly takes on are 'pants' parts]." Leaving aside the impossibility of extrapolating any such conclusions from a one-album sample (as well as the grammatical shoals on which that second sentence founders), we find compelling music on Heroes and Heroines.
The album's centerpiece is "Scherza infida," a 12-minute aria from the second act of Ariodante; the track listing erroneously gives an eight-minute length. This slow, profound torrent of despair and suicide should convince any doubters that Handel's operas have moments of tragic intensity equal to anything in opera of the nineteenth century -- as will the final accompanied recitative from Hercules, "Where shall I fly," a mad scene in which Connolly injects an appropriate degree of craziness into such lines as "No rest the guilty find/from the pursuing furies of the mind."
The vocal selections (there are a few instrumental interludes included as well) are divided between English and Italian, and Connolly deserves extra points for clear articulation that will keep listeners' noses out of the booklet texts. The Symphony of Harmony & Invention isn't absolutely smooth, but there's nothing that sounds out of place. The bottom line: this is a very strong album of Handelian vocal music for anyone from a newcomer attracted to the music by the Fleming album to a confirmed enthusiast.