At first glance Rome seems an unlikely home (however temporary) for an aspiring young opera composer. A Papal ban of 1703 prohibited the performance of opera in the city, but both musicians and patrons found their way around the restrictions by rebranding essentially the same music as cantatas – works whose music more than compensated for the lack of visual drama. Handel produced some 80 during his lifetime, many dating from his stays in Rome.

For this collaboration with Robert King and The King’s Consort, English soprano Carolyn Sampson combines four of these solo cantatas to create a surprisingly varied recital. Vividly dramatic scenas for Agrippina (Agrippina condotta a morire) and Armida (Armida Abbandonata, the best-known work featured here) sit alongside an unexpectedly delicate, fine-spun retelling of the story of Icarus (Tra le fiamme – whose title aria is better known as Partenope’s delightful Qual farfalletta, one of many arias later reused by the composer) and a cantata inspired by Abdolonymus – a gardener who reluctantly gave up his profession to become King of Sidon.

It’s baffling that we don’t see Sampson on the opera stage more often. The careful characterisation she brings to each heroine – the humanity as well as the fury of Armida, at her most poignant in the exquisite Ah, crudele with its endless melismas, the ferocity of Agrippina, vowing in a rather extraordinary recitative that her own son must die – is beautifully handled. And the two lighter cantatas receive no less expressive care.

If Sampson isn’t the most extrovertedly Italianate in her delivery (for that, Roberta Invernizzi’s Glossa recording is an obvious choice) she brings such meticulous attention to musical and dramatic detail that it really doesn’t matter. Her more contained style is a natural fit for the patrician playing of The King’s Consort, with leader Kati Debretzeni often emerging out of the texture to challenge the soprano to greater feats of virtuosity and embellishment. A quietly superb disc.

Composer: Handel
Composition: Italian cantatas
Performer: Carolyn Sampson s,
The King’s Consort/Robert King
Catalogue Number: VIVAT117