Review by: Robert Levine
Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 7
As if not being familiar with Welsh soprano Ruby Hughes were not enough, the catchphrase for this CD is Arias for Giulia Frasi, Handel’s last prima donna. Well–the things you learn. Frasi arrived in London from Italy in 1742 when Handel’s opera-writing career was over. What lay ahead was some grand oratorios–Jephtha, Theodora, Susannah, and Solomon. Charles Burney (b. 1726), the English music historian, composer, and musician, was Frasi’s teacher. He wrote of her “sweet and clear voice” with a “smooth and chaste style of singing which, though cold and unimpassioned, pleased natural ears.” It’s uncanny, but those words ideally describe the lovely Ruby Hughes. I will take exception, almost, with the use of the word “unimpassioned”, since while Hughes will never be mistaken for Maria Callas or Patti LuPone, the arias she sings here are invariably impersonations of chaste women. What came first? The chastity of the music or Frasi’s/Hughes’ emotional reticence?
Ninety percent of these arias are either marked Largo or something equally mopey, so it would be wrong to expect fireworks. One of the points to Theodora’s suffering and unhappiness is that melodrama would be wrong, and since the only true feeling in Susannah’s “Crystal streams in murmurs flowing/Balmy breezes gently blowing” is the afternoon heat, we can’t expect too much exuberance. But Theodora’s pre-execution aria could be more filled with either dread or near-lifeless resignation–just the type of feeling that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson could fill a tragic character with. Lovely but droopy is a yearning-for-death aria from Ciampi’s Camilla; the following Presto from the same opera, in which she sees the Ferryman about to take revenge is wonderfully fluent in coloratura, but the text could be better articulated.
But Hughes’ tone is ravishing, her style impeccable, her pitch absolutely true. She sings with such ease and grace that you wish she would take a chance on an unwritten high note or embellish a cadence with something other than a miniature twirl. In John Christopher Smith’s oratorio based on Paradise Lost (another laugh riot) Eve regrets her mistake and contemplates death in a gorgeous recitative and aria, and the text is spotlessly sung. The surprising duet for bassoons in Smith’s Rebecca, “O balmy sleep”, is as stunning as the aria itself, with its long breaths and lovely melody, but again, here we are in the doldrums. The brilliant Eltruda’s aria from Thomas Arne’s Alfred is a welcome interruption from the gloom, and it brings Hughes to life.
And so it goes. This is a disc that is hard to judge given the morose quality of most of the music, but I was never bored. What I often wished was that the voice were recorded more prominently; it often disappears, and I suspect that it takes with it any immediacy of feeling as well. Or can a singer have too much good taste? Or is Hughes about to swoon?
Laurence Cummings and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provide excellent accompaniments and play beautifully, with highlights like the aforementioned bassoon duo, the breezy strings in Susanna’s aria, and the blaring horns in the revenge aria. As I said, I’m not certain how much more lively this recital might have been given its content, but one might start with the voice-orchestra balance.
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Recording Details:Album Title: Handel's Last Prima Donna
Arias by George Frideric Handel, Vincenzo Campi, Thomas Arne, John Christopher Smith, & Philip Hayes
- Ruby Hughes (soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings
- Chandos - 0403