ìApollo e Dafneî ó the English Concert at St. Georges, Bristol.

He wrote it at roughly the same
time as his first full-blown opera seria were starting to roll off
that amazingly fruitful production line which was to dominate the English
opera scene for decades, and it has music and drama of the same high quality,
even if the quantity is more limited.

It is a delightful, if sobering, tale of out-of-control sexual desire
which leads to loss and regret; an everyday tale of country folk set in the
misty mythological past where nymphs, shepherds and passing gods wreak havoc
in the Arcadian calm. The amorous god Apollo spots a nubile young wood nymph
called Dafne. He becomes entranced and then besotted with her and in the end
his unwanted advances force her to reject him in the only way left open to
her: she turns herself into a sweet-smelling laurel bush, (forever after
known to gardeners as ìDaphneî) and Apollo is left to rue his
heavy-handed technique, singing a heartbroken tribute to his lost love.

Although this cantata can be viewed as a simple morality tale ó and most
probably was in 1710 ó Handel has lavished the full panoply of his skills
upon it, though in miniature form compared to his greater vocal works. He
actually started writing it, we think, whilst still in Venice where he was
both working and networking among the nobility of that great musical centre
of the time. The manuscript had to travel with him when he left for a brief
sojourn in Hanover which was where it was completed. This break in the
compositional timeframe is not noticeable ó the arias and recitatives flow
smoothly one to the other with all of the young Germanís trademark

A recent national tour by the renowned baroque ensemble The English
Concert has put the spotlight back on to Apollo e Dafne and a recent
Friday evening saw them performing it as the semi-staged centre piece of an
all-Handel programme for an appreciative audience at St. Georgeís, Brandon
Hill, Bristol. This elegant and acoustically-blessed baroque ex-church was
the perfect setting for the English Concertís stylish and alert playing,
where both spirit and refinement were found in equal measure. It was
particularly interesting to see the band directed not from the violin, but
from the fine baroque oboe of Alfredo Bernardini, who has both worked with
some of the best period ensembles in the world, and he brought a touch of
Italian musical fire to proceedings as he stood and played his instrument
with astounding virtuosity in both the two concerti grossi (No 2 in B flat,
and No 3 in G) and a shorter cantata for solo soprano ìAh crudel nel
pianto mio

This lament was plangently sung by visiting Spanish soprano Nuria Rial,
who has an ideal voice for this kind of work ó clear, limpid and quite
white in tone ó and she gave a polished if perhaps musically unadventurous
reading of it. What was needed was an injection of Italian brio ó and we
got it with the entrance of Fulvio Bettini as the importuning god Apollo in
the main vocal work of the evening. Bettini is an experienced singer of not
only Handelís meaty baritone roles, but also of the earlier Italian masters
such as Monteverdi, and his stage credits go from that period right through
to Ravel, Weill and Glass. This kind of theatrical experience showed in his
robust performance ó his characterisation had a 360 degree aspect and his
rich middle and lower range was used to the full, expressing not only the
godís passion, but also his frustration and almost comic exasperation with
his unwilling beloved. His final aria, when he mourns his vanished love,
ìCara pianta, co’miei piantiî revealed a matching ability with
legato line. Nuria Rial was a most believable young wood nymph and her
desperation and unease was effectively captured by some stylish and elegant
singing with neat ornamentation, most noticeably in the lovely aria
ìFelicissima questíalmaî where her tone was entrancing. The
two singers combined gracefully in the final duetto ìDeh, lascia

Sue Loder © 2007

image_description=Apollo e Dafne
product_title=G. F. Handel: Apollo e Dafne
product_by=The English Concert at St. Georges, Bristol.