George Frideric Handel. Arie per la Cuzzoni
Peter van Heyghen, conductor
This recording tells the story of the collaboration between the famous 18th century primadonna Francesca Cuzzoni and Georg Friedrich Handel (on the cover he is called “George Frideric”, but I prefer to use the original form). It was not a long and easy association, but it lasted enough to give us some absolute masterpieces, as Rodelinda, Admeto and Tamerlano – operas which, along with other Handelian works, soprano Hasnaa Bennani revives in this lovely album.
Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778) is one of the most famous sopranos of the Baroque era. She began her career singing in many important theatres of the Italian peninsula and was appointed virtuosa da camera (chamber soloist) to the Grand Princess of Tuscany before her departure to London, where the most important part of her career took place. It is in this period that Handel created his roles for her. Later, she continued to perform in Florence, Turin, Vienna and Hamburg, but died in poverty after her last years were plagued with debts.
The most famous episodes of Cuzzoni’s life reveal immediately her extravagant and bad temper: the first was the scandalous quarrel with her colleague Faustina Bordoni Hasse during a performance of Astianatte in 1727, the second happened with Handel himself – when she refused to sing Teofane’s aria Cara immagine from Ottone, which was not composed for her, the composer threatened to fling her out of the window.
Many accounts of Cuzzoni’s time has been hand down to posterity, but this description by Giovanni Battista Mancini (taken from his book Pensieri e riflessioni pratiche sopra il canto figurato, 1774) is maybe the most famous one: «It was difficult for the hearer to determine whether she most excelled in slow or rapid airs. A native warble enabled her to execute divisions with such facility as to conceal every appearance of difficulty; and so grateful and touching was the natural tone of her voice, that she rendered pathetic whatever she sung, in which she had leisure to unfold its whole volume. The art of conducting, sustaining, increasing, and diminishing her tones by minute degrees, acquired her, among professors, the title of complete mistress of her art. In a cantabile air, though the notes she added were few, she never lost a favourable opportunity of enriching the cantilena with all the refinements and embellishments of the time. Her shake was perfect, she had a creative fancy, and the power of occasionally accelerating and retarding the measure in the most artificial and able manner, by what the Italians call tempo rubato. Her high notes were unrivalled in clearness and sweetness, and her intonations were so just and fixed, that it seemed as if it was not in her power to sing out of tune».
When you listen to Hasnaa Bennani and compare her with her ancient colleague, you realize immediately two things: the first is that the Franco-Moroccan soprano fortunately seems to have nothing in common with Cuzzoni’s bad temperament, since she shows a kind and placid nature when she sings her arias; the second thing is that many observations Mancini wrote about Cuzzoni can be addressed to Bennani too. She is not a primadonna in the negative sense of the term and prefers to use her silvery, almost ethereal voice with what I can call “reserved elegance”.
This feature, along with her impeccable coloratura command and absence of fatigue, demonstrates that she has all the features be considered a wonderful singer. The only thing you miss in her performances is a little more expressiveness (especially in the arias from Rodelinda), but there are anyway some memorable moments, as Se pietà di me non senti from Giulio Cesare, where her simple expression of sorrow makes this a disconsolate aria, or in No, più soffrir non voglio from Alessandro, an aria di furore sung with reason and order rather than with confusion and madness.
Arie per la Cuzzoni is Bennani’s fine achievement, thanks not only her remarkable gifts, but also thanks to the light and brilliant sound of the orchestra Les Muffatti, directed by Peter van Heyghen. They accompany the singer with great skill and gently add some nuances where she fails to portray them, becoming extremely valuable.