Vivica Genaux / Simone Kermes

Rival Queens

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This release is not exactly a re-creation of the night of June 6, 1727, when Italian sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni duked it out on stage at the King's Theatre in London, gleefully egged on by their partisans. The music includes pieces written both before and after the opera presented that night, Giovanni Bononcini's Astianatte (although an aria from that rarely heard work is indeed given its recorded premiere here). Yet the recording is more than just a vague evocation of that famous event. Of course no one can know exactly what Bordoni and Cuzzoni sounded like, but there are abundant contemporary descriptions of their voices. More importantly, there is a good deal of music written specifically for one or the other of them, both before and after 1727. Very little of it has been recorded, and all of it consists of explosively virtuosic Italian opera seria of the sort that Cecilia Bartoli and other sopranos have been unearthing. The rival queens here are American mezzo Vivica Genaux and German soprano Simone Kermes; both are gutsy singers who get into the spirit of the music and have the chops to handle it. The programs sets up Kermes as Cuzzoni, who was known to have an extraordinary cantabile sweetness, and Genaux as Bordoni, the fiery one. The correspondence is not precise; they sing a few duets from after the onstage duel, which assuredly did not happen in real life. But this is an album full of virtually unknown music that fully engages the listener, and it's a great deal of fun. The boxing-glove graphics would have been cheesy in any other context, but in repertoire as far over the top as this music is, it works. Germany's new Cappella Gabetta under Andrés Gabetta, playing very much in the edgy, tumultuous Italian style, provides ideal accompaniment. Highly recommended.

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