Mania And Depression From Simone Kermes’ Love Letter To Handel

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

German soprano Simone Kermes, she of the flaming red hair, flashy gowns, and jittery dance movements on stage, has become, unavoidably, a cult figure. Specializing in Baroque music—with a few major trips into Mozart—her singing compels every listener to an opinion of her work. Her coloratura is invariably flawless at whatever speed or height or depth, her staccatos impeccable little diamonds tossed into the air, her breath control almost startling, her pianissimos exquisite and otherworldly, her legato as smooth as silk. But…but…she’s not only frequently over the top in these feats of derring-do in a way that draws attention to the feat itself, but her slow, languid singing can verge on the severely droopy. Her singing is affected for dramatic intent, but all too often the affect is what you get.

The notes that accompany this CD of fascinating arias say nothing about said arias; it is, rather, a personal love letter from Kermes to the composer. “We know each other in a mysterious way, ” she writes to GFH, and you suspect that were he not dead, he might accuse her of stalking. These effusions get more loony the more you read.

Kermes, with a smallish, finely focused voice, is fearless when it comes to expression, and the CD starts with an aria filled with hate sung by the sorceress Armida in Rinaldo. After a sound-effect thunderclap, Kermes greets us with an amazing crescendo and follows it with an intensity of expression that is both wonderfully musical and pulsating. Similarly, in an aria from La Resurrezione, with trumpets blazing, Kermes offers thrills—acres of finely etched coloratura, accurate octave leaps, and duets with the trumpets (with a vibrato-less tone that can almost cause a toothache)—during which she invites Hell to open up; the B section, somewhat more noble of utterance, finds a warmer tone inviting the King of Glory. Athalia’s vengeance aria is forceful, and sung, as it should be, in English. Lotario’s simile aria (the little boat is on the gentle sea, but if a storm arises…) is simple virtuosity and lovely at that, sung with pointed Italian diction, and is capped with a cadenza that features an uninvited high E-flat.

Ah, but the slow arias. In “Piangero”, Cleopatra’s gorgeous outpouring, Kermes is given to a type of whisper that makes you wonder if she wants us to hear it at all; it’s a mawkish reading, full of odd, scoopy attacks. “Lascia ch’io pianga”, similarly presented as an introverted nervous breakdown, gets away with it more, and it is helped enormously by the riffing from the continuo section of Amici Veneziani.

Most sopranos would kill for Kermes’ astoundingly even tone and ability to sing off the text, even in showy arias, but the impulse to “overdo” is never under control. Nobody loves a good early music voce bianco better than I do, but Kermes almost weaponizes her gift: the listener should be moved, not stunned into submission and under the impression that the soprano is crazy.

All that having been said, pro and con, I really can’t take my ears off her. She’s alternately fiery and tender, and heaven knows she’s never dull. Untamed (well, she’s being doing this for years, so the die is cast) as she is, that is indeed her calling card. But I’ve always wondered what she’d be like if she slightly turned down the wild emoting just a bit. I’m still wondering.

Fans of Handel will love much of this, as I do, while probably being a combination of exasperated and fascinated. I always welcome a new Kermes CD and play it like crazy for a few weeks. Then it tends to go on the shelf and remain a curiosity. She is certainly not to be ignored. And neither is her band, Amici Veneziani, made up of nine strings, harpsichord, and theorbo, plus additional winds and brass, who play brilliantly and, at times, with their own somewhat rash embellishments, all under Boris Begelman. The recorded sound captures it all. (And incidentally, the umlaut over the “a” in Händel is Sony’s idea, not mine.)

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Mio caro Händel
  • HANDEL, G.F.:
    Arias from the operas Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, Amadigi di Gaula, Serse, Teseo, Rodelinda, Deidamia, & Lotario; Arias from the oratorios Le Resurrezione, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, Athalia, Saul, and The Triumph of Time and Truth; Nine German Arias (No. 4, "Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle")
  • Simone Kermes (soprano)
  • Amici Veneziani, Boris Begelman

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