Handel: Atalanta, complete (CD review)

Dominique Labelle, Susanne Ryden, Cecile van de Sant, Michael Slattery, Philip Cutlip, Corey McKern; Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorale. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-04 (2-disc set).

Nobody does baroque better than Nicholas McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. And nobody does Handel better than McGegan and the PBO, either. So, there's no wonder the team do such a good job with Handel's Atalanta.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote the three-act opera Atalanta in 1736, basing it on stories of the legendary Greek athlete of the same name. Although you often hear singers perform the number "Care Selve" from the work, hardly anybody performs, let alone records, the complete opera these days, and, in fact, the only other stereo recording of it I'm aware of is by McGegan himself, issued by Hungariton in the early Nineties. I haven't heard it, but I can't imagine its being any better than this new one, which the Philharmonia Baroque have released on their own label.

I doubt that anybody in our own time or in Handel's came to Atalanta for its story. Suffice it to say that the plot is rather slender. It's a pastoral love story set in ancient Greece and deals with a young man, King Meleagro (Susanne Ryden), chasing a young woman, the Princess Atalanta (Dominique Labelle) of Arcadia. But to complicate things, as operas and plays must do, he's pretending to be a shepherd and she a shepherdess, and neither thinks the other good enough. Then, to complicate matters further, there is another couple lurking about, a real shepherd and shepherdess.

No, folks go to these kinds of shows now as then not for the narrative but for the music, which in this case is charmingly light, graceful, lyrical, and easy to like. Unfortunately, it may be just as easy to forget, and for listeners not used to such things, the Baroque style of music and singing may get a bit monotonous after a while. It doesn't have, for instance, the earthy, robust lustiness of something like Handel's contemporaneous ode Alexander's Feast, which, coincidentally, I had the opportunity to hear live with the PBO and several of the same soloists as here just a few nights after listening to this disc. I vote for Alexander, a much bigger moneymaker for Handel, then and now.

The fact is, Atalanta was not a great opera in Handel's day and, naturally, doesn't compare to operas in the later traditions of Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, or Puccini. With the exception of the aforementioned aria "Care Selve," there are few notable tunes. What's more, almost nothing lasts longer than a few minutes, the number of tracks on each disc--twenty-six and twenty-eight--giving you some idea of how quickly each song comes and goes. This may be a blessing for those listeners with short attention spans, or it may be a curse for those hoping for something more substantial.

Nevertheless, Maestro McGegan, an old hand at these things, keeps the production moving along at a healthy clip, the orchestral accompaniment always lively and the singing splendid, especially from Ms. Labelle and Ms. Ryden, although for that matter they all do good work. I would not be going out on a limb declaring this performance second to none in the music.

The PBO recorded the performance live in September, 2005, at one of their favorite venues, First Congressional Church in Berkeley, California. If you enjoyed the sound of their critically praised live recordings of Berlioz, Handel, and Haydn, you'll no doubt enjoy this set as well. Personally, I don't care all that much for live recordings, and this one demonstrates why. The sound is slightly bright, forward, and thin, with a bit too spacious an acoustic for my taste. Additionally, we hear background noise from the performers shuffling around on stage and from the audience, who burst into applause after every number as is the usual wont of opera patrons. Still, there is excellent clarity throughout the set, with well-extended highs and plenty of air around the voices and instruments. So, yes, if you enjoy the sonic experience of an all-out live performance, with everything that entails, this one fits the bill. Myself, I'd rather just do with the music.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review, which I found through a google search. I don't think I have ever come across a satisfactory live opera recording (and precious few in other genres). However, I was toying with the idea of buying this one ... and I certainly will not be now that I have read your comments about audience participation and stage noise. But of course there is not much choice out there, with only the older McGegan as an alternative. It's still available, so I think I'll be buying it itstead. 3CDs, but a studio recording. I'd love to know if this set (on Hungariton) comes with a libretto (in Italian) and an English translation.
    Thanks again for your review.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa