This recording of Handel's first "hit" oratorio, conducted by the always-masterful Christopher Hogwood, features the unusual pairing of Dame Joan Sutherland and Emma Kirkby. When Joan recorded the title role, she was at the final stage of her singing career, past her prime. Yet, curiously enough, at this late stage she was able to cope with some of the problems that plagued her in the sixties and seventies. She finally became secure in her bottom register, and sharpened her cloudy diction. Her opening recitative, What Horrors Round Me Rise, will stun those who are accustomed to her mushy, garbled words.
On the whole, this is a brilliant, wonderful performance from La Stupenda. The only drawback is her slow-moving first aria. She temporarily reverts back to her mushy diction, and there is a distinct wobble in her voice, typical of recordings she did in the last five years of her recording career. However, in her confrontation in the Act II with Josabeth (Emma Kirkby), she is again in fine form, and disperses her rage aria, My Vengeance Awakes Me with stunning bravura. It's as if the years melted away. Sure, it is closely miked, but her coloratura is first-rate, every high note perfectly pitched, with a multitude of interpolations and roulades. It's beyond me why I've never seen this aria on any Joan Sutherland aria recital compelation.
As for Emma Kirkby, she is a godsend. She came along at the right time, as more and more conductors were turning their attention to baroque music. Since she always used a "light", vibrato-less voice, she sounds basically the same today as she did two decades ago. Really, just about everything this woman recorded is worth buying, and this is no exception. Her Act II aria is absolute perfection. She showers you with her diamond-clear, dazzling voice with some of the most radiant top notes I have ever heard.
The rest of the cast varies in quality. Aled Jones, the boy soprano, has a quivery voice, that sort of puts me off. But, for being so young, he turns in a credible performance. James Bowman's legacy has been far outshone by Andreas Scholl and David Daniels, but this performance is worthwhile, even if he has that "nagging" edge to his singing.
P.S.- As a bit of trivia for Sutherland fans, I looked up what she had to say about this recording in her autobiography, A Prima Donna's Progress. She fusses about the baroque-era instuments going constantly out of tune. She also writes about being "musically overwhelmed" at this time in her career, and declares that she would have rather been at the beach with her family, rather than in the recording studio!!! Thankfully for us, she didn't go to the beach, and gave us what is one of her best late-career performances.