This all-French production from the year 2002 is one of those recordings that I, as a Handel and early music fan, can without further ado wax enthusiastic about. The music, originally performed in Naples in 1708, is already typically Handelian and sounds just like one would expect one of his operas or oratorios to sound, and, indeed, Handel later plundered many of the numbers for his stage and sacred works; also, there are many striking similarities to 'La Resurrezione', another work Handel produced during his stay in Italy as a young man. The story is, apparently, based on an old Sicilian legend, and is probably better known in the English-language version that Handel composed many years later in London; this Italian version is, however, completely different, with regard both to the music and the text.
On this recording you get to hear three of today's most exciting young Handel singers and an orchestra (Le Concert d'Astrée) which, although I had never heard the name before, seems to have Handel in its blood, so accurately, so temperamentally does it produce the most delightful Handelian tones. Harpsichordist/director Emanuelle Haim demonstrates her mastery at every step, while her singers (Sandrine Piau, soprano; Sara Mingardo, alto; Laurent Naouri, bass) seem to have a natural gifting for this kind of music which flows and warbles as though Handel had had exactly these voices in mind. Laurent Naouri, in particular, has an incredibly difficult part to master, with an enormous range, but in the end one has the feeling that he was scarcely challenged; just listen to Track 2 on CD 2, the aria 'Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori', it is balm for the ears (despite reaching down to D below the bass stave) and gives even this murderous, lustful giant a pensive side that blocks any black-and-white thinking that may occur. But the two female singers are equally wonderful; I found that Sara Mingardo's performance grew on me the more often I listened to these discs, whereas Sandrine Piau's convinced me right from the word 'go'.
The recording quality is A 1, and I have not had any problems with the discs being copy-controlled; I tried them out on my car's CD player and they worked there perfectly well (although this delightful music is really too beautiful to be heard with traffic noise in the background; I recommend a quiet evening at home in front of top-class speakers). The accompanying booklet contains the usual essay, the sung text in four languages and black and white photographs of the singers and Ms. Haim; unfortunately there is no further information about the participants and no details are given as to the instruments played. However, this is absolute five-star material.