Eternal Heaven

Eternal Heaven

Albums of arias by Handel are not a new idea, but Eternal Heaven is different, French Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre insists. Conceived during a pandemic lockdown, the recital groups 21 arias from 12 of Handel’s English-language works into a sequence that Desandre’s co-curator, the lutenist Thomas Dunford, calls “a Baroque West Side Story.” “The narrative of the album is two lovers and how it is to fall in love,” Desandre explains. “In the middle, they fight, but at the end, they understand that the depth of their love is everything.” Putting the 21 tracks together was, for Desandre, a true voyage of discovery. “I’d sung none of these pieces before, and about half of them I was completely unfamiliar with, from works like Joseph and His Brethren and the Occasional Oratorio.” Joining Desandre and Dunford for Eternal Heaven is the English countertenor Iestyn Davies. Together, they toured the recital with Dunford’s period-instrument ensemble Jupiter before recording. “That helped get the correct order for the pieces in our mind, and it was wonderful working with the players in Jupiter,” Desandre says. “I really feel like another instrument with them, like I’m part of the band.” Before making Eternal Heaven, Desandre had sung with Iestyn Davies only once before, and that was in highly unusual circumstances. “Thomas and Iestyn were doing a concert where I was in the audience, and out of the blue, he invited me onstage for the encore, ‘Pur ti miro’ from Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea,” Desandre recalls. “I was wearing jeans and not ready at all, but it was really fun. And it stayed in Thomas’ mind that our voices went really well together, that we make the same shapes with the notes and have the same musical tastes, too.” Here, Lea Desandre guides us through some of her favorite moments from Eternal Heaven. “Eternal Source of Light Divine” “The opening movement of Handel’s cantata Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne was originally written for an alto to sing with a solo trumpet. We thought it was way too beautiful not to put in the program. Thomas said to me, as a joke, ‘Could you sing the trumpet line?’ So, we tried, with Iestyn singing the alto part and me as the ‘trumpet.’ It worked well, although because I’m a mezzo, I can’t sing that high for too long. James Halliday, who supervised all the musical scores for Eternal Heaven, matched the words of the aria to my ‘trumpet’ part, and it makes a perfect opener for the album.” “No, No, I’ll Take No Less” “This aria from Handel’s Semele is a big challenge technically, perhaps because Handel hated the singer who created this role! It’s the most difficult aria I’ve sung in my life. There are huge stretches of coloratura which are extremely long, with jumps that singers hate, and you have to do it all twice. I chose the piece for the album because, for me, it’s a way to improve my voice and also to show this amazing agility that singers had in Handel’s time. The character singing the aria is clearly very angry at this point, and the result is fireworks.” “Thither Let Our Hearts Aspire!” “For me, this duet from Handel’s oratorio Theodora was one of the high points of the whole album. Because some of the harmonies clash, Iestyn and I had to melt our voices together and shape the sound on notes that don’t go well together, and that was fascinating. I think this aria is pure genius and, vocally, so well-written. Handel understands the voice so well, like Mozart.” “Guardian Angels, Oh, Protect Me” “I love the stillness and the calm of this aria, which comes from an oratorio called The Triumph of Time and Truth. The text, ‘Guardian Angels, Oh, Protect Me,’ is a good résumé of the album. It’s really spiritual and addressed to God, but I think it can really speak to everyone when you need strength and an energy around you to protect you.” “That’s So You” “Handel didn’t write this one. It’s the last track on Eternal Heaven and a kind of encore. It was written by Thomas Dunford and his friend Doug Balliett, and it’s a song about friendship. After concerts, they like to create, to jam, to share, and they wrote this song in Switzerland, in a park under a tree, with a lake and some beautiful mountains in front of them. In our programs with the Jupiter Ensemble, we like to have these pop songs at the end, mixing Bach and Dowland with The Beatles and Bob Dylan.”

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