This release follows the now tried and tested formula of a programme which demonstrates the character and abilities of a star singer from the past, through the roles originally written for them. Handel’s singers are a favourite subject for this pattern, so it is surprising, perhaps, that the soprano Giulia Frasi has not been given much attention on record before, as she created the roles in some of the composer’s last and greatest music-dramas. This Chandos issue (including first recordings) is also more interesting than simply charting one aspect of Handel’s already generally well-trodden output, in that it also traces Frasi’s career in London through the compositions written for her by others in the long shadow cast by him, and highlighting the development in musical styles after he ceased to compose in 1752.
Having been trained in Italy, Frasi came to England late in 1742, and seems to have been taught then by Charles Burney, who wrote of her “smooth and chaste style of singing” in his famous history of music. That accurately describes the quality of Ruby Hughes’s interpretations, certainly in the slower, more-reflective extracts, which comprise the music Handel wrote for his final, long-suffering, but virtuous heroines – Susanna, Theodora, Iphis (in Jephtha), and the Queen of Sheba. That unaffected, generally unadorned simplicity is fine up to a point, and in Iphis’s ‘Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods’ she sounds rightly as though already transported to the hereafter. But Handel – ever the man of the theatre, as revealed in recent times through successful staged productions of Theodora and Jephtha – surely demands just a touch more operatic zest. As the early Christian martyr Theodora, Hughes could convey a shade more angst and suffering prior to the character’s execution; the Queen of Sheba deserves a touch more sparkle, even in her minor-key aria ‘Will the Sun forget to streak’; and Susanna’s evocative ‘Crystal streams in murmurs flowing’ could do with more yearning richness, as Hughes has to contend with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s ravishing account on Nicholas McGegan’s complete recording of that oratorio.
The steady, calm focus Hughes brings to the extract from Arne’s Artaxerxes (sung by Frasi in its 1769 revival) suits better its simple, virtually syllabic setting, and she matches the plaintive wailing of the oboe in the aria from the oratorio Rebecca (1761) by Handel’s amanuensis John Christopher Smith. But again, as with Theodora, in Smith’s oratorio on Milton’s Paradise Lost (1760), despite the attractive freshness of Hughes’s singing, Eve’s contemplation of mortality could encompass more knowing regret. In all these reflective numbers Hughes sounds curiously distant and reticent, as though she is merely a subsidiary part to the admittedly well-nuanced colours created by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the direction of the experienced Handelian Laurence Cummings.
She shows more mettle in the other operatic numbers here. Whilst participating in the premiere run of Theodora in 1750, Frasi also appeared in the first London performances of Vincenzo Ciampi’s Adriano in Siria, and Il trionfo di Camilla. Hughes projects her line in the extrovert aria from the former with greater urgency than elsewhere, with her longingly sustained appoggiaturas and cadences complementing the wistful cello melody of the long opening ritornellos that sounds as though it’s a Concerto movement by Haydn or Boccherini. Hughes’s extrovert flourishes in the latter opera are despatched with almost shouting abandon, as also in the aria added for Frasi in the 1753 revival of Arne’s masque of 1740, Alfred, and they provide a pleasurable contrast. Nevertheless, these are comparatively brief diversions, as the release presents overall a somewhat muted portrait of Frasi in sound, though Hughes’s technical accomplishment is indisputable, so too Chandos’s sound-quality. All the sung words are included in the booklet.