Written in 1732, this opera has a curious history. The libretto, anonymously adapted from a text by Antonio Salvi, concerns the Spanish King Fernando, who undertakes to make peace between the warring Portuguese King Dionisio and his rebellious legitimate son. He is aided by Dionisio's selfless illegitimate son, his Queen, and his daughter Elvida, to whom he is betrothed, and is hindered by a treacherous Councilor pursuing his own agenda. This unflattering portrait of Portugal's royal court might have offended Britain's oldest ally, so half-way through composing the opera, Handel changed the locale and the characters' names, and re-titled it Sosarme, Re di Media. Unaccountably, he eliminated many of the narrative recitatives before the first performance, making the story less coherent and the characters less affecting.
On this recording, however, director Alan Curtis has restored the work to its original form, textually, musically and dramatically. The result is vintage Handel. The melodies are meltingly lovely; the orchestration is transparent but colorful. The music evokes and enhances the moods and images of the words: teasing dissonances and their resolution illustrate "woe" and "joy," deceptive cadences treachery. Of the seven roles, only one is a bass (the villain, naturally). Two lyrical countertenors represent the noble peacemakers, and two clarion tenors are the feuding hotheads. The mezzo-soprano is a movingly suffering Queen; her lamentations and reproaches are riveting. Elvida's soprano runs the gamut of emotion, from tremulous anxiety (with rests and hesitations), courage and determination (with stratospheric flights), to rapturous bliss in two love duets with Fernando, where instead of singing only to each other as usual, they sing together. All the parts are extremely demanding, with much florid coloratura to which the singers add further ornamentation in the da capos. The performance is beyond praise: stylistic, meticulous, clear, expressive, passionately involved, and beautiful in sound. --Edith Eisler