Handel Arminio Cencic Claire Donose Yi Sancho Sabata Magoulas PetrouGeorg Friedrich Handel

CAST: Arminio: Max Emanuel Cencic, Tusnelda: Layla Claire, Segeste: Petros Magoulas, Varo: Juan Sancho, Sigismondo: Vince Yi, Ramise: Ruxandra Donose, Tullio: Xavier Sabata

Armonia Atenea
George Petrou, conductor

Decca, 2016

«The opera is rather grave[,] but correct & labour’d to the highest degree & is a favourite one with Handel. The bases & accompaniment if possible is better than usual. But I fear ‘twill not be acted very long. The Town dont much admire it».

This is the account of Georg Friedrich Handel’s opera Arminio written by a contemporary, Lord Shaftesbury, who attended the premiere at the Covent Garden on January 12th, 1737. He confirms that the opera was not particularly appreciated by the audience and actually it was repeated only five times before falling into an oblivion which lasted two entire centuries.

Arminio is one of the three operas (the other two are Giustino and Berenice) Handel composed within a period of half a year in 1736 for the 1736-1737 season and that were performed between January and May 1737. This was a bad year for Handel, who suffered from depression and from a temporary paralysis of his right hand and recovered only in the last months of the year, after a stay in Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen).

Arminio has been composed on an old-fashioned libretto by writer and physician Antonio Salvi (1664–1724), who was employed at the Medici Court in Florence, and tells the fictionalized story of Arminius, former officer of the Roman empire and chieftain of the Germanic tribe of Cherusci who defeated the legions led by Publicus Quinctilius Varus in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. The defeat shocked the Emperor Augustus who, according to the historian Suetonius, repeated the famous phrase: «Quintili Vare, legiones redde!» («Quintilianus Varus, give me back my legions!»).

Salvi’s libretto has been used by other composers before Handel and it is worth to remember at least Alessandro Scarlatti, who composed Arminio in 1703. Handel used several libretti by Salvi while he was in London, but cut mercilessly the text of this one, which was burdened by more than a thousand useless lines of recitative, and reduced them to merely three hundred. He also assigned three arias to different characters.

The present recording has failed to arouse my enthusiasm except for Max Emanuel Cencic, who sing the title role, and Xavier Sabata, to whom is entrusted the shorter part of Tullio. Cencic portrays an elegant Arminio, to whom his velvety and flexible voice confers depth and charm. The entire role is characterized by fearless coloratura and by a wide spectrum of feelings, which ranges from the intrepid arias as Sì, cadrò ma sorgerà (Act II) and Fatto scorta al sentier della gloria (Act III) to the melancholic Vado a morir (again in Act II). As for Sabata, his diction is not always clear, but he stands out for his perfect coloratura and for his warm singing, so that his arias (Non deve roman petto and Con quel sangue dipinta vedrai) are some of the best moments of the opera.

The other singers are not as impressive as these. Layla Claire’s Tusnelda is only partially convincing. She begins quite well in the duet which opens the opera (Il fuggir, cara mia vita) and is fine again in her arias from Act II (Al furor che ti consiglia) and Act III (Ho veleno, e ferro avanti), but somewhere else she does not seem completely at ease, as in Scaglian amore e sangue from Act I, where she unpleasantly shouts her high notes (a tendency which partially affects also Ho veleno, e ferro avanti, anyway). The other female singer (Ruxandra Donose as Ramise) is quite good, especially in Sento il cor per ogni lato circondato.

As for the male singers, neither Vince Yi (Sigismondo), nor Juan Sancho (Varo), nor Petros Magoulas (Segeste) are remarkable in any way. Yi’s voice is extremely unpleasant and thin and sounds like that of a boy, with all the negative repercussions that this have on his singing. His voice sounds rather shrill in the high register, which seems rather limited, and his coloratura is extremely imprecise.

Sancho sings also in a recording of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria I recently reviewed and I found him quite good there, so that it was a surprise to me to dislike him in this one. His singing is affected by a strange intonation and by an inaccurate coloratura, as in Mira il ciel, vedrai d’Alcide le guerriere armi, his aria from Act III. Magoulas, at last, is not always impeccable too and some differences between the registers are perceptible.

As for the conduction, George Petrou leads the orchestra Armonia Atenea in a generally fluid way and thus the opera is never boring or dull but, on the other hand, sometimes it becomes a little too sharp and his times are exaggeratedly fast.

In the end, this Arminio is disappointing and, with the exception of Cencic and Sabata, here there is hardly something worth listening to.