Anna Prohaska and Il Giardino Armonico partner to bring a collection of opera arias in an Alpha album entitled Serpent and Fire, (p) 2016.
In a video marketing the release, Antonini references the album as a “dream” rather than a historical production; the explanation gives them license, perhaps, to bring together several disparate, but all baroque composers. I don’t much mind the mixture of original works or the variety of composers. Each piece stands well on its own, or with an added track or two for context.
Antonini is featured as a soloist in several numbers, including my favorite track on the recording, Quando voglio, by Antonio Satorio. It’s the closest thing IGA approaches to a “L’Arpeggiata” style adaptation, which is an apt comparison, with the performance on this album of Ah! Belinda! by Purcell, from Dido and Aeneas. This piece is featured on L’Apreggiata’s own Purcell album, Music for Awhile. I think both settings are well-done, but ultimately I think I preferred the one by L’Apreggiata, even though their presentation was somewhat less historically-accurate.
That said, this album by Prohaska reveals her to me to be a versatile young singer who is amply impressive with her expressive emotion, which is matched, as we might expect, by the athletic, energized playing of IGA. Their playing, in fact, reminds me a lot of the style employed by the ensemble for their earlier album of Handel’s op. 6 concerti grossi. It’s an apt comparison since Handel is also represented. Handel is joined by Hasse and Graupner on the “modern end”, and Purcell is flanked by Rossi and Dario Castello, for an all-baroque presentation. I liked the instrumental pieces too, which make for a nice recital or concert “presentation” despite the skips in composers, locations, etc.
Serpent and Fire seems an apt title, not only for the arias written for the characters, Cleopatra of Egypt and Dido of Carthage, but also for arias that represent well the fire with fury and the serpent with effective turns of line, seemingly calm on the page, but quite affective to our ears.
For readers, I am not a big fan of opera. (It is perhaps related to my disinterest in modern-day musicals.) Therefore, my diet of baroque opera is more often than not fed through recordings like these, “best hits” of arias. As individual pieces, I find the music more palatable and easier to “digest.” I share this because I have a collection of recordings not unlike this one, but among those, I have to say this has quickly become my favorite. The musical selections are first rate, the performances are both exciting and well-captured, and Antonini has managed to combine both the intimate and more orchestral together in one recording with a star soprano with quite an expressive range.
This is a top-tier recording and recommended with no reservations.