Don't be deceived by the title of this release – from several points of view it is a more enterprising project than yet another traversal of the careers of singers connected to a famous composer or repertoire – in this case two of the divas employed by Handel in the heyday of his first opera company in the 1720s. Around half of the items recorded are little-known extracts from operas by other composers in which those famously feisty sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, also took part – indeed no fewer than fourteen arias are claimed to be first recordings. Furthermore, some of those selections will surely provoke attention on account of the fact that they stem from libretti or dramas which Handel also set, with numbers from an Ariodante by Pollarolo; Porpora's version of Poro; Torri's Amadis di Grecia; as well as Orlandini's Nerone (covering roughly the same events as those in Handel’s own, now-lost, opera on the subject, also coterminous with Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea).
The generous selection of arias included here reveals a wider array of qualities than just the ‘innocent and affecting’ style (Quantz) and robust coloratura for which Cuzzoni and Bordoni, respectively, were admired. If anything, it is Lucy Crowe – standing in for Cuzzoni – who tends to sound more consummately assured. But she, and Mary Bevan (taking the part of Bordoni) superbly capture their musical characters, as well as stand in contrast to each other, as particularly well exemplified in the duet 'Placa l'alma' from Handel's Alessandro which brings the pair together, Crowe well-rounded and lustrous in tone, and Bevan a touch more brittle and delicate.
If Cuzzoni was known for the expressive pathos of her singing, Bordoni was conspicuous for her technical virtuosity. Certainly Bevan finds her way around the notes with great agility in the numbers allotted to her here, which tend to comprise more coloratura than those written for Cuzzoni. She projects that with an impressive variety, imperious in a rage aria such as Torri’s ‘Se a ammolire’, fierily urgent in ‘Voglio amore’ from Handel’s Tolomeo, and creamily alluring in the aria ‘Alla sua gabbia d’oro’ from Alessandro in which Handel imitates birdsong. An emotionally and structurally more fluid number as ‘Solitudini amate’ from the latter opera shows how Bevan can rise beyond mere virtuosity to thread different arioso and recitative passages into a coherent whole.
The vocal writing tends to be simpler and more direct for Cuzzoni, which Crowe brings out with a noble purity and brightness (for example in the famous ‘Falsa imagine’ from Handel’s Ottone), often sparing in the use of vibrato so as to maximise its effect when it is deployed. The trumpet-like richness of her voice (only occasionally coming under slight strain) is well suited to the lithe melodies of the two extracts from Vivaldi’s Scanderbeg, apparently receiving their premiere recordings (only a few fragments are known to survive from this opera and Naïve’s Vivaldi Edition have only recorded two different ones). In ‘Nelle mie selve natie’ she is called upon to sing entirely solo as Vivaldi, most unusually, writes no orchestral accompaniment for the vocal episodes around the ritornello. Cuzzoni also created the role of Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and in ‘Da tempeste’ Crowe gives a wonderfully buoyant performance, lightly and coquettishly embellishing the da capo, and rising to stratospheric heights, showing that she was as capable of coloratura as her colleague.Bridget Cunningham’s researches – concisely and informatively set out in the accompanying booklet – qualify the often-repeated comments about the great rivalry of these two singers, observing that this was largely whipped up by the press and their supporters, as they enjoyed a generally close and co-operative working relationship. Cunningham also refutes the notorious story that they actually came to blows on stage during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte before the Princess of Wales, remarking that the evidence only indicates a brawl between those supporters in the opera house. Three arias from that opera again juxtapose their characteristic vocal styles, Bevan sounding bubbly in one, Crowe dignified and assured in the other two. Bevan apes something of that demeanour in the charming, if not very idiomatically Italianate, setting of a cantata by Maurice Greene, written as a musical farewell for Bordoni on her departure from London (shortly before she married Hasse).
Cunningham directs London Early Opera from the harpsichord, and together they provide some stylish accompaniments, partnering the singers astutely in distilling the mood or affetto of each aria, but not unduly distracting attention away from the vocal line. Despite the ensemble comprising two dozen musicians, apart from Cunningham, the levity and unanimity of their playing sounds more chamber-like, so that occasionally greater depth from the orchestral sonority might have been welcome, but otherwise it ensures a bustling and energetic pace the rest of the time. Overall this is a mouth-watering compilation, made even more enticing with extensive notes about the singers and operas, along with texts and translations of the arias chosen.