One of the most distinctive role assumptions of the last Covent Garden season was the Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus' appearance as Cherubino in a revival of Le nozze di Figaro, described on this site as 'a particular revelation with her scale of dynamics and tone colour'.
It's fitting, therefore, that she should return to Classical repertoire for her debut on the deutsche harmonia mundi/Sony BMG label. But instead of going down the well-worn road of a Mozart arias recital, Bonitatibus has decided to opt for the by no means inferior operatic output of his elder colleague, Haydn, and the results are very attractive indeed.
Alan Curtis, the conductor of the set, has written on the back of the CD case that 'Since we do arias from La fedeltà premiata, L'Infedeltà delusa and La vera costanza, I think the perfect "modern" (i.e. ironic) title [for the recital] is L'infedelta costante, which pretty much covers every situation in every opera we do.' So all the selections on the disc portray women in various stages of constancy or infidelity, be it grieving wives or flirtatious maidservants. It makes for a fascinating and engaging journey through a neglected repertoire, which remains long overdue for revaluation in the bicentenary of Haydn's death.
Bonitatibus jumps straight in with Amaranta's beautiful aria 'Dell'amor mio fedele' from La fedeltà premiata, and at once one can hear the suitability of her fresh tone to the material. Also of note is the poise of her performance, which evokes the flavour of the period. However, there is also immense life about her renditions: her clarity of diction allows her to communicate the blood running through the character's veins, especially in the final section's discussion of 'hate and anger'.
Celia's aria ('Placidi ruscelletti') from the same opera receives an equally compelling performance. One can appreciate the composer's direct reaction to the text – 'the 'peaceful rivulets' are communicated through the flowing string accompaniment and the pastoral imagery is brought to life through the solo flute. The length of line Bonitatibus creates is perfect; my only slight query here and in other of the tracks is whether she deploys a touch too much vibrato during legato phrases.
A particular highlight of the disc is Alcina's 'Ad un guardo, a un cenno solo' from Orlando Paladino. 'The ocean boils and the earth trembles and thunder is heard', according to the text, and both Haydn and Bonitatibus make sure we don't miss the point. The aria is full of outbursts, sudden dynamic changes, and a general sense of fire. Yet it's also irresistible and a little jolly: one can't help but smile at the fervour of Bonitatibus' performance.
It's back to sweet seduction for the next track, which is about a different Alcina. Haydn wrote a cavatina for Gazzaniga's L'isola di Alcina in 1786, and Bonitatibus has included it in this recital, bringing a lavish tone quality to the pretty little number. Things are tempestuous once more in Rosina's aria from La vera costanza, 'Dove fuggo, ove m'ascondo'. Bonitatibus reacts intensely to each line of the recitative, then attacks the aria itself with fervour.
L'Infedeltà delusa is one of Haydn's two or three finest stage works, and here we get two arias for Vespina. Bonitatibus goes to town on the comic hyperbole of 'Ho un tumore in un ginocchio' ('I've a swelling on my knee, that forces me to limp') – an aria with a list of ailments – and later responds with similar humour to 'Trinche vaine allegramente', whose text is a corruption of Italian and German.
'D'una sposa meschinella' is another insertion aria, this time written for Paisiello's La frascatana in 1777. It's a beautifully orchestrated number for the character Donna Stella, with strings and woodwind in counterpoint, and although again Bonitatibus' vibrato is again more constant than is to my taste, the humanity with which she delivers the text about 'the inhuman lot of a wretched wife and deserted lover' is emotive. The final aria on the disc is Costanza's 'Se non piange un infelice' from L'isola disabitata, and it proves to be one of Bonitatibus' most potent interpretations: her control of line over the sensuous scoring, with wind colours and diminished chords not unlike Mozart's, is excellent.
The disc ends with Arianna a Naxos, Haydn's cantata for solo voice and fortepiano of 1789. The vocal performance is the equal of Bonitatibus' achievement in the arias, but one inevitably feels the reduction of texture in moving from orchestral accompaniment to just a fortepiano, so that however sensitively Alan Curtis plays it, it feels like a slight anticlimax to me. Then, too, four overtures seems like overkill in a CD of mezzo-soprano arias.
However, that's not enough to diminish the overall quality of the disc, which features some outstanding singing and excellent playing from Il Complesso Barocco.
Uk release date: 4 May 2009