When the great castrato Giovanni Carestinti first sang the role of Ruggerio in Alcina he was not pleased with the aria Handel had written for the Crusader hero in Act 2. Charles Burney recorded the singer’s displeasure and the composer’s reaction:
Verdi prati, which was constantly encored during the whole run of Alcina, was, at first, sent back to Handel by Carestini, as unfit for him to sing; upon which he went, in a great rage, to his house, and in a way which few composers, except HANDEL, ever ventured to accost a first-singer, cries out: “You toc! don’t I know better as your seluf, vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver.”
It is a deceptively simply aria, basic ABA, with very little opportunity for the florid ornamentation that Carestini was famous for. But its very simplicity makes it a challenge for any singer. I first heard it on a recording – I think possibly the first LP I ever owned – issued by London Records back in 1962. Looking back now I realize it was a pioneering effort as very few of Handel’s operas were consider saleable quantities at that time. No doubt London recorded and released it at the insistence of Joan Sutherland who was one of their brightest stars in what was one of the starriest list of operatic voices on the planet. London was not stingy when it came to casting the other roles – Monica Sinclair, Graziella Scuitti, Luigi Alva, a very young Mirella Freni supported the slightly droopy – not many consonants in sight – Australian diva and as Ruggerio the incredible Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza. I fell in love with Berganza from very first listening and my favourite track was “Verdi prati” – I’m sure I drove my mother up the wall playing it over and over again.
|A rehearsal photo of Teresa Berganza as Ruggerio in the 1978 production of Alcina at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. I found it while going through a box of old programmes that had been in storage.
Sutherland sang Alcina on stage in Venice, Dallas and London but to the best of my knowledge Berganza only appeared in it once – at the 1978 Aix-en-Provence Festival. It was a banner year for Aix and I saw Janet Baker in Dido and Aeneas conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; Don Pasquale with Gabriel Bacquier; and Christane Eda-Pierre, Ann Murray, Valerie Masterson and my beloved Teresa in Alcina led by Raymond Leppard. The weather that year was perfect, Aix was at its most festive, the food was incredible and the music… as I said it was a banner year. And if it had been sixteen years since Berganza recorded “Verdi prati” the passage of time had only enriched her performance. Fortunately it was preserved on video for French Television and I am able to relive that magical experience.
Ruggerio, a crusader knight, has fallen under the spell of the enchantress Alcina, who turns former lovers into rocks, trees and wild beasts. Brademante (Ann Murray in this clip), Ruggerio’s beloved, has disguised herself as a knight to gain access to Alcina’s magic island and attempts to save the knight. He is given a magic ring which restores him to his senses and he sees the island as it really is—a desert, peopled with monsters. Appalled, he realizes he must leave, and sings “Verdi prati” (“Green meadows”) where he admits that even though he knows the island and Alcina are mere illusion, their beauty will haunt him for the rest of his life.
While going through a box of programmes in an effort to get rid of “stuff” I discovered the rehearsal shot of Berganza neatly tucked into the book from that year’s Festival. It brought back memories of that summer and a magical evening of music under the stars in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace. The programme and the photo went back into the box – how could I rid myself of anything that brings back such happy memories?
24 agosto/August – San Bartolomeo