Sunday, 22 March 2015

Recital: Randall Scotting and Marie van Rhijn

A Year in the Life of Handel: 1738

(Handel House Museum, 22 March 2015)

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Randall Scotting | Handel (obviously) | Marie van Rhijn
Back in October, on visiting Handel House for the first time, I wrote about their exhibition, A Year in the Life of Handel. This focused on the works produced by Handel in 1738 and the challenges he faced at the time. Not least of these was the growing indifference of the English public to Italian opera seria: audiences were thinning out and there was barely enough interest to sustain one Italian opera company, let alone Handel's team at Covent Garden and the rival Opera of the Nobility. As if that wasn't enough, Italian opera was also being satirised in English-language burlesques, most famously The Dragon of Wantley. So, the cultural climate was hostile; the financial situation was verging on dire (as usual); and Handel himself was recovering from a stroke. And yet, in this year when everything seemed to be stacked against him, he nevertheless produced two operas, a pasticcio and an oratorio. Today's recital by Randall Scotting, with Marie van Rhijn on the harpsichord, brought some of these works to life; and it was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

Just to quickly run through the programme: we began with a rather fiery aria from Faramondo, sung by the character of Gernando: Nella terra in Ciel. This was followed by a gentler piece, Che posso dir, o cara from the pasticcio Alessandro Severo: an opera I don't know at all yet; but I want to, because I found this aria exquisitely beautiful. Next up, for some light relief, we had a piece from The Dragon of Wantley, composed by John Lampe, which I'll come back to in a moment. Freeing ourselves from its scurrilousness, we returned to more elevated realms thanks to the splendours of Serse. Scotting kicked off, as I suppose one must, with Ombra mai fu, that deceptively simple aria. The opening is a killer and there may have been a split second of unevenness here, but only that; and thereafter I was treated to one of the most beautiful renditions of this aria that I've heard so far. (Scotting graciously repeated it at the end, as he had no encore prepared, and it was even more sublime second time round.) He followed it with two of Arsamene's arias, the showy Sì, la voglio e la otterò (one feels that Arsamene is fighting back against all the flashy arias his brother gets) and then the gentler Meglio in voi. Finally we rounded off with another of Gernando's dramatic arias from Faramondo, this time Voglio che mora, siand, last of all, a piece of melting beauty from Saul: David's aria O Lord whose mercies numberless

So: The Dragon. The deliciously subversive Oh hoh Master Moore was an aria written for the dragon himself, sung in the original performance by a bass (Scotting, of course, sang it in his own range but charmingly explained afterwards that he had been trying to sing it with a 'bass quality'). The music was intended to satirise the flamboyance of Italian opera, complete with a rapid sweeping scale of coloratura at the end. The lyrics are, however, somewhat more robust than you'd find in Handel, namely: 'Oh hoh Master Moore / You son of a whore / I wish I had known your tricks before'. (Metastasio, one imagines, wasn't troubled by sleepless nights.) But The Dragon enjoyed such a huge success: Scotting explained that it ran for 69 performances and was packed out every day. The longest run any Italian opera ever achieved in London was 23 performances; and, to draw a direct comparison, Handel managed eight performances of Faramondo and six of Alessandro Severo. It doesn't say much for our national taste, I admit. But it was great fun to hear an excerpt of The Dragon today; and I'm only sorry that I won't be in London in early April, when a complete performance will be taking place; it'll clearly be quite an event.

The Rehearsal and Performance Room at Handel House (slightly differently arranged) where the concert took place
I know very little about harpsichords, but even I could see that Marie van Rhijn played with poise, crispness and grace. Her skill was most evident during her rendition of an improvised harp solo at the end of O Lord whose mercies numberless. I think everyone in the room was startled by the change in the sound of the instrument, which with the help of a little felt damper suddenly took on the deeper, fuller sound of a true harp (I had no idea that 18th-century harpsichords had so many options). However, the more challenging job must have been keeping up with some of the formidable flurries of notes in the arias, which she did with aplomb. I feel on slightly firmer ground talking about the singing. Being a newbie, I hadn't come across Scotting before and wasn't sure what to expect; but Nella terra in Ciel displayed a richly textured, full voice with a somehow buttery quality, and a brief flash of more powerful high notes at the end. 

But, actually, crazy high notes actually weren't necessary to enthral me today. As Che posso dir began, I found myself riveted. Part of the reason for this was Scotting's gorgeous low notes - and more on those anon - but I was also caught by his grasp of the aria's emotion. He sang lightly and clearly, but with heart-rending feeling; and to my slight embarrassment I felt myself getting misty-eyed. The same was true in Arsamene's Meglio in voi, where there were some fine sustained notes; and O Lord whose mercies numberless, which was equally beautiful with a forceful final note. I was interested to hear Scotting say at the end that he loves singing the more contemplative, gentler arias, because it's here that he feels Handel's genius truly lies. And you can tell: he shone in these tender, introspective pieces. Not only that, but many of them allowed him to show off an incredibly strong lower range. From what I've heard so far (and I'm far from expert), it seems to be rare for a countertenor to have a rock-solid foundation to the voice like this. Most singers, when they get this low, seem to be teetering on the edge of cracking and going down into chest voice, but Scotting gave us sumptuously strong, velvety low contralto notes which gave me goosebumps. I'd love to hear him do Alto Giove one day; I'm sure it would be almost unbearably beautiful. 

And it wasn't just the music that made the recital so fun. Scotting started off with a brief introduction to Handel's situation at the time, and then took the time before or after each aria to put it in context. For example, after Ombra mai fu he told us the story about Handel having borrowed much of this famous aria from Bononcini's setting of Ombra mai fu (he didn't add that Bononcini's aria was itself taken from a libretto originally set by Cavalli). In a rather nice touch, van Rhijn played Bononcini's version on the harpsichord so that we could directly compare; Scotting apologised for not singing, but explained that it was set a little too high for him. Again this caught my attention, because it emphasises the variety in voices. (Since coming home this afternoon I've noticed that Scotting chose to sing Gernando's arias from Faramondowritten for a contralto, as opposed to the dizzying arias written for Caffarelli as primo uomo.*) His readiness to explain gave the recital a personal touch which I absolutely loved. Of course grand concerts are wonderful too in their own way, but in an intimate setting like the Rehearsal Room at Handel House, it felt appropriate to have something a bit more discursive and informal. Warm and engaging, with a taste for a good story, Scotting was an excellent guide.** 

For those who'd like to see him for themselves, he'll be at Handel House again on 14 May with a concert intriguingly titled The Thief, the Priest and the Lover, with music by Ruggieri and Vivaldi. To my immense annoyance I can't make it, because real life is getting in the way; but it will be worth your time, I assure you. If anyone does go, please do come and tell me about it; likewise The Dragon of Wantley, which I'm also going to have to miss. For a taster, his ensemble Ballo Baroque have uploaded him singing Son sventurato from Ristori's Adriano in Siria on YouTube. As for me, for now, I'll just have to loiter around Scotting's website (where you can also listen to his recordings of arias by various composers) and keep my fingers crossed that he gets some more London dates in his schedule soon. 

Some snaps of Scotting in his role as Giulio Cesare at Forth Worth in 2011 - I imagine he's very good at the acting side of things too

* To see the difference in pitch, one just has to listen to arias from the recording of Faramondo. Here, Gernando is sung by Xavier Sabata, making characterful and ample use of his lower range. Compare his Voglio che mora to that of Faramondo's Voglio che sia l'indegno, which Max Cencic blitzes with even more stratospheric dazzle than usual.

** There was just one tiny glitch in the introductions: Ombra mai fu is, of course, not an aria sung by Arsamene but by the brat-prince Serse himself. But I'll overlook that, since he sang it so beautifully.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The 5 Countertenors

(Decca; available in both CD and MP3 format)

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I'm not going to make a habit of writing about individual albums, but this new CD really does need to be mentioned, especially in the light of August's 'countertenor albums' post. There's rather a lot of excited bouncing below, and not an awful lot of knowledgeable critique; but, with three members of Team Artaserse featured here, why not bounce?

Let's establish from the outset what this is not. Based on the title and boy-band-style cover, some of my friends wondered if it was intended as a 'pop' classical super-group (a better-looking, higher-pitched version of the Three Tenors). But it isn't: on the contrary, it's a feast of music at its most deliciously Baroque, and its release was inspired by a concert series in which Max Cencic and Parnassus rallied a bit of a dream team. Their voices show off the remarkable development of countertenor singing in just the last few years. I imagine the cover has been designed to capture a broader audience: perhaps one which still imagines countertenor voices as thin, reedy and artificial. We know better, of course. 

Although I have my favourites, certainly, there's a real effort to show off every voice to best advantage. And the most exciting thing about the album is that it allows us to hear how some of the younger singers have matured and developed since we last had the chance to hear them. Indeed, it's worth buying this album for one voice alone; but more on that in a minute. Let's take things in order. The privilege of opening the programme goes to Valer Sabadus, with Jommelli's Spezza lo stral piagato from Tito Manlio. It's a glittering, grandstand aria: the kind that makes you sit up and take notice, and it gives Sabadus the perfect opportunity to display his vocal agility with some rapid coloratura. As you may be aware, he's one of my favourites and I already knew, from his recent Gluck album, that he's made striking progress since Artaserse (though I liked him well enough there). His voice seems to be warmer now, with a velvety nap to the sound and a stronger, more secure foundation. If he shines in the sprezzatura of the Jommelli, he is equally good in the gentler Non so frenare il pianto from Gluck's Demetrio, which is a more understated piece of romantic melancholy and thus closer to what Sabadus has done on his earlier CDs. It allows him to savour those gentle, long, high notes that I've always enjoyed, with a sudden burst of energy in the central section. Even if the aria doesn't have the champagne glamour of the opening track, it lets him show his range (but the Jommelli is the one I'll be listening to most). 

Xavier Sabata steps up next with Porpora's Tu, spietato, non farai cader vittima from Ifigenia in Aulide. It's gloriously elaborate, bristling with violins. Its opening recitative displays Sabata's expressiveness as a singer, before launching into an aria that's best described as a coloratura firestorm. Every time I hear Sabata I'm struck all over again by how good he is: the emotional intensity of his performances is second to none, always bringing out the story at the heart of the aria. Fewer singers are capable of this than you might imagine. And Sabata is also technically strong, each note perfectly placed without feeling remotely pedantic. He can sweep from melting gentleness to imperious disdain in the space of a few lines; and I have a soft spot for the way he rolls his Rs. Sometimes he sounds almost as if he's purring. Sabata and Cencic, of course, are the most experienced singers on this disc and it shows in their mature, polished professionalism. Since Cencic recently had an entire post to himself, in which I gushed about how wonderful he was, I'm not going dwell on him too much here because I would merely repeat myself. Suffice it to say that his first aria, Galuppi's A questa bianca mano is a moment of calm in the programme, a more restrained and elegant piece with the odd soaring note thrown in here and there to catch your breath with its loveliness. His second piece, Addio o miei sospiri, has attracted some comment from more knowledgeable friends who've been intrigued by its attributional history; but for my part I've just been thoroughly enjoying it as a piece of music. It's tremendously lively and, it turns out, surprisingly difficult to shake out of one's head; Cencic, of course, sings it beautifully.

The boys in more informal mode / recent roles: Cencic | Sabata in costume as Alidoro in the recent Frankfurt Orontea
Sabadus after a recent concert | Yi (photo shamelessly taken from Twitter as there's no decent photo from Indian Queen
Mynenko in a really rather fabulous hat; no idea when, where or what this was; but I couldn't resist (sorry Yuriy)
There was one reason I was especially looking forward to hearing this album, and one particularly compelling reason for you to buy it, and that is Yuriy Mynenko. He is not only a forceful singer, with a delicious swagger to his voice, but he's also immensely difficult to track down on recordings. In the aftermath of Artaserse, eagerly buying up the back catalogues of the various singers, I was stumped by Mynenko and ended up making do with three tracks from his Mortelmans album (which are worth a listen simply to appreciate the stupendous grace of his voice). But there isn't yet a solo CD and I don't know if there ever will be. This beggars belief because Mynenko is one of a rare breed: his Mortelmans songs proved that he could do melting elegance, but he was also born to sing crazy bravura arias, thanks to his strong, flamboyant and very agile voice. Here, for me, Mynenko steals the limelight with his sheer pizzazz. His first track is Crude furie, which has been done a hundred times, it's true (he sang it in the 2009 final of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition), but he does it immensely well. It drips with disdain and, complete with a wrathful sweep of ornamentation in the da capo section, from soprano to baritone, it made for a royal tantrum worth remembering. But even this risks being overshadowed by Mynenko's other track, J.C. Bach's Ch'io parta? from Temistocle. This is a slow-building dramatic treat, whose menacing beginning flourishes into splendour with a full-throated orchestra, complete (to my inexpressible delight) with hunting horns. I haven't yet seen Mynenko live, of course, but his voice sounds immensely powerful compared to those of his peers. It is a swashbuckling, domineering performance and it leaves me even more determined to see him in something.* 

The final member of the line-up is Vince Yi, whom my opera buddy and I saw a couple of weeks ago in The Indian Queen. As I said at the time, he has a very unique voice. High-pitched and very clear, his notes soar far above anyone else's; there is something positively ethereal about some of the sounds. Some of his notes have an timbre which I can only describe as slightly metallic. There's something diamond-like about this voice: brilliant, sparkling and cool; and his technique is very impressive. His rendition of the closing track, Hasse's Ah, non è ver, ben mio sounds virtually effortless, with a couple of remarkably sustained notes, and a closing section which hovers somewhere up around the vaults. His purity and angelic tone will appeal to many people and, though my personal weakness is for more sensual, roughened-velvet voices, I certainly find it intriguing. The only thing I'd say is that sometimes I felt a little more emotion would have helped to bring out the power of the story behind the music. For example, in Ti parli in seno amore from Myslivecek's Farnace, Yi sings with delicacy, but there isn't a real sense of the anguish that I'd expect to hear from a man who's urging his wife to slaughter their son rather than risk him falling into enemy hands. Nevertheless, the whole point of this CD is that it offers us a range - both purity and power. 

Some might say that there are too many big showpiece arias one after another, although I would never complain about such a thing because that's precisely the kind of music I most enjoy: give me a tempest aria and I'm happy as a sandboy. My one regret is the brevity: I could happily have had another five or six tracks, especially as this might have been a chance to introduce even more singers, perhaps some bright (even) young(er) things that haven't had their big break yet. And perhaps this is the point to address the elephant in the corner of the room. Many people I've spoken to about the album have immediately said, "But what about Fagioli?" It's a fair question and I don't know the answer. I think we have that reaction because we expect to see him in such a company; but - and here I'll be interested to know what others feel, if we can put aside our partiality for a moment - I don't feel that the album is weakened in the slightest by his not being there. Don't misunderstand me. Fagioli can do no wrong for me and, yes, I'd have been thrilled if he'd been on the CD as well; but, if we treat this disc as an exploration of the countertenor voice, then Mynenko does an extremely fine job of covering the powerful, swaggering end of the spectrum. As such - a compilation, not a manifesto for something permanent or longer-term - I think it works extremely well. 

I'm slightly embarrassed at how long this post has ended up being. My apologies. Back to normal service shortly. For another take on the album, pop over to Opera innitDehggial not only beat me to it on reviewing the CD, but has also developed a most individual way of summing up each singer's particular voice.

For more information on the CD and to see the chaps in action (along with Mynenko looking dramatically moody as he attacks Bach), here's a little introductory film:



* Rumour has it that Mynenko is singing the title role in Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria this coming winter, with Fagioli as Farnaspe. That pretty much falls into my 'must see at all costs' category. I also hear that he's singing in a revival of Vinci's Artaserse in Kassel in the autumn, although strangely enough he's apparently due to sing the role of Artaserse. I say 'strangely' because Mynenko would surely make a magnificent Arbace, with his taste for flamboyant arias; but 'tis not our lot to reason why... 'Tis just our lot to start thinking of any way we can humanly afford all these tickets...

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Catone in Utica: George Frideric Handel (with a little help from his friends) (1732)

(Opera Settecento at St George's, Hanover Square, 17 March 2015)

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We're all going to be hearing rather a lot about Catone in Utica this year, so let's get things off to a roaring start with a performance I saw last night at St George's, Hanover Square, formerly Handel's parish church, as part of the Festival. Although the opera was put together by Handel for his 1732 season, it's stretching the truth a bit to say that it's by him. Handel had to fill out his programmes somehow and so, at this stage of his career, he often produced one or two pasticcio operas each season alongside his own works. These pasticci were assembled from arias by several other composers and tailored by Handel to meet the taste of his demanding British public. I hasten to add that they were 'demanding' in the sense that they were easily bored by recitative and apparently needed a series of big hits to keep their attention: Catone in Utica is stuffed full of storm arias. Handel's choices are interesting in other ways too: he gave the character of Arbace some surprisingly upbeat arias from other operas, which in turn affects his characterisation (positively, I felt); and he chose to cut Catone's first aria, Con sì bel nome in fronte. In some versions this can drag on slightly and I wonder if Handel  felt it was best to get his audience straight into the midst of the characters' romantic tribulations. The rather fabulous thing is that Opera Settecento's production last night was the first time that Handel's Catone pasticcio had been staged since 1732. I find that rather wonderful.

So. Imagine yourselves in 46 BC (there are spoilers ahead). Roman liberty is on its last legs and all that remains of the Republican resistance has regrouped on the coast of northern Africa, at Utica. Their figurehead is the charismatic but uncompromising senator Cato the Younger. Having watched Caesar's inexorable approach, the Republican forces march out to meet him under the command of Cato's colleague Metellus Scipio, at the Battle of Thapsus. It's a bloodbath. The Republicans are beaten and Caesar, conscious of the threat they pose, has every single man slaughtered. Cato, who wasn't present, sees his dream of Roman liberty dashed before his eyes. He commits suicide, bloodily and gruesomely, a few weeks later. So far, so Plutarch. Metastasio's libretto, unsurprisingly, fleshes out the political machinations with some romantic entanglements. His Catone (Cato) has a daughter, Marzia, whom he plans to marry to the African prince Arbace, as a way of cementing their alliance. Arbace is delighted at the prospect, but Marzia is less enthusiastic. She is in love with Cesare (Caesar), who reciprocates her feelings; and, though Marzia knows her father would be furious if he knew of her affections, she dreams of making peace between the two men she adores. More to the point, she knows she's the only one who can do so. However, her efforts are doomed. Metastasio's Cesare is the archetypal noble conquerer. He's gracious; willing to make concessions. But Catone is obdurate. He will only accept peace if Cesare renounces all his powers and gives himself up to be judged as a tyrant. Unsurprisingly, Cesare's generosity only goes so far and their negotiations founder. Catone's pride, however, proves to be his undoing. As he watches the grim defeat of his army, knowing that nothing now stands between Cesare and absolute power, Catone chooses death above servitude. But he has one final demand of his traumatised daughter: marry Arbace and learn to hate Cesare as he, Catone, has done. Despite everything, Marzia is a devoted daughter and feels she must respect her father, even if it means being forever separated from the man she loves. It's hardly an upbeat ending. In fact, Vivaldi thought it so depressing that he rewrote the final scene in his version, giving the opera a happy ending in which Catone lives and is reconciled to Cesare, while Marzia and Cesare stare lovingly into one another's eyes as the curtain comes down. But that doesn't happen in Vinci and it doesn't happen here. Oh no. Here, my friends, the angst is out in force.

I hadn't come across Opera Settecento before, and was delighted by this lively young ensemble who delivered the goods with passion, pizzazz and plenty of panache. From where I was sitting I couldn't see many of the musicians, but I could see the director Tom Foster at his harpsichord, fizzing with energy and driving the arias along at a robust pace. His company of (mostly) young singers rose to the challenge with aplomb. Christopher Jacklin's baritone Cesare had many of the really fun arias and he tackled them with glee: after his first piece, Porpora's Non paventa del mare, I found myself simply scrawling 'stunning' in capital letters across the page. But that was cast into the shade by the pure joy of his So che nascondi, set to the music of Vivaldi's Benchè nasconda from Orlando furioso. I fell in love with this aria on the basis of the introduction alone, played with irresistible verve and bounce by the orchestra. I spotted more than one member of the audience surreptitiously bopping along to the rhythm. I may have been one of them. Cesare is certainly a challenging role, demanding an agility and a command of coloratura which I am sure would daunt most singers. Every aria is a storm aria, with all that implies; but Jacklin leapt in to tackle each complicated section with ease. He also had an endearing habit of grinning with delight when he knew that something especially mental was coming up. I always love to see people who are evidently enjoying themselves and having fun with this crazy music. Christina Gansch, playing the vengeful Emilia*, had her own fair share of dramatic flair in Act 3, after a string of dutifully grief-stricken arias in the earlier acts. These were movingly sung, but rather overshadowed by the flourishes of her co-stars; and she pulled out all the stops for her late flash of fireworks, with Hasse's Vede la nocchier la sponda from Euristeo. Effectively another storm aria, this was delivered with furious élan, and Gansch rounded things off with a glare at the audience and a proud toss of the head, which sparked off surprised laughter and applause as she flounced off. I was glad she had the chance to sing something more diverting because she has a gorgeously throaty voice, particularly good at commanding full, swelling high notes, and Emilia's earlier arias hadn't really given her full scope to unleash herself. 

Allies and enemies: Christopher Jacklin (Cesare) | Christina Gansch (Emilia) | Christopher Robson (Catone)
Erica Eloff (Marzia) | Emilie Renard (Arbace)
The role of Catone was meant to be sung by Andrew Watts but, due to his last-minute indisposition, the role was taken over with a mere 48 hours' notice by Christopher Robson. I am torn in what to say: his generosity in stepping in should, in some ways, preclude any criticism; but at the same time, if I am to review the performance, I have to admit that I was profoundly disappointed. Robson is in his early sixties and it seems that the countertenor voice doesn't age as well as others: time has certainly taken a harsh toll here. But to say more, under the circumstances, feels desperately unfair. The situation was summed up by a friend's laconic comment at the first interval: "Not quite Senesino." 

For me, the joint stars of the show were Emilie Renard as Arbace, and Erica Eloff as Marzia. Renard in particular was a joy to watch. She achieved the admirable feat of completely reversing my opinion of Arbace as a character. In the versions I've heard on CD, I've always found Arbace a bit of a wimp: the languishing descendent of Monteverdi's nice but uninspiring Ottone. Last night, though, he developed personality in spades. Renard played the African prince as an optimistic lover, refusing to let his spirits be dampened by Marzia's obvious disdain and bouncing back every time with youthful enthusiasm. In a suit and loosened tie, with spiked hair, Renard looked like a grinning, punked-up schoolboy. Her infectious smile won the audience over from the word go, so that I'm sure many of us found ourselves secretly rooting for poor Arbace to get the girl in the end. It helped that she also had a fine, strong mezzo and a deliciously mischievous sense of drama. In contrast to Arbace's boyish exuberance, Erica Eloff's Marzia was dignified and cool to the point of being positively icy. In her arias, though, Eloff managed to express all the despair and confusion of a woman whose heart and duty pull her in two different directions. She has a beautifully light, agile voice which turned out to have quite astonishing power, as I discovered in a rather unexpected way. The website spoke vaguely of arias by Hasse, Porpora, Leo, Vivaldi and Vinci, so I hadn't known how many to expect by each composer, nor which they'd be. Since Leo, Vivaldi and Vinci had all written settings for Metastasio's Catone libretto, I assumed the arias would be cherry-picked from among the different versions. I also thought that, since Handel had relied so much on Vinci in his pasticcio of Artaserse (cunningly renamed Arbace), he'd draw heavily on Vinci's Catone here. Not so. This was predominantly Leo's evening. Of the sixteen arias, eight were lifted from his Catone; the others were adapted from completely different operas by the other composers. Again Handel proved interesting in his arrangement of the acts. Catone is the title character and, in most versions of the opera, Cesare gets the best arias; but Handel focuses the spotlight firmly on Marzia. She has a showpiece aria at the end of each act, reminding us of her love, her misery and ultimately her despair. As the opera comes to a close, Marzia is denied the lieto fine granted to most Baroque heroines. Handel couldn't throw in the traditional final chorus celebrating justice or mercy or love, because it wouldn't have worked in this context; and so he decided to give Marzia a way to express the tumult of her feelings, while also ensuring that the audience went out into the night with a spring in their step. This takes the form of nothing less than Vinci's Vo solcando. 

You could have knocked me down with a feather. As most of you know, Vo solcando occupies a very special place in my heart. It's no exaggeration to say that this aria got me hooked on Baroque opera; and I've listened to Franco Fagioli sing it more times than I can remember. For me, his version is sheer perfection; and I hope Erica Eloff will forgive me for being so slavishly enamoured of it. However, despite my bias, I was still deeply impressed by Eloff's phenomenal performance, which left my mouth open and my eyes sparkling. To make the whole thing more deliciously insane, the aria was ramped up to frenetic speed: a little too fast at times, in fact, but it was delivered with drama and daunting sprezzatura, crowned with some dazzling high notes. It was a stupendous way to finish.

All things considered, it was a very enjoyable night. I'm thrilled to have come across Opera Settecento and I'll be keeping an eye on their future projects; it seems their next opera will be Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria in the autumn, so I suspect I will find my way to that. It was also a great introduction to some very exciting young singers, all of whom I would be absolutely thrilled to hear again. What a superb way to become acquainted with the story! It's going to be very interesting to compare this version - for which Handel was effectively able to put together a 'greatest hits' selection - with Vinci's, which was the very first setting of the libretto. But we'll have to wait for May for further information on that score...

In the meantime, for an excellent diagram explaining the plot, head over to Opera innit for Dehggial's quirky but very knowledgeable take on things. 

The church and the conductor: a glimpse of St George's | Tom Foster in a rehearsal for the production
* An interval discussion brought up the problem that Pompey's wife is sometimes called Cornelia (Giulio Cesare) and sometimes Emilia (Catone). Why is this? Answers on a postcard, please.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Indian Queen: Henry Purcell (1695)

(English National Opera, 6 March 2015)

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It’s safe to say that reactions to English National Opera’s new production of The Indian Queen have been mixed. Some critics have praised it as a creative and courageous reworking of Purcell’s opera, which dares to acknowledge the atrocities carried out during the colonisation of the New World. Other people (friends and colleagues) have expressed bafflement and rising irritation. Apparently audience members have vanished during the intervals in a number of performances. It was clearly going to be a challenging experience but, when I went last Friday, I was nevertheless determined to enjoy it. I wanted to enjoy it. It was my first Purcell, after all! But, alas, halfway through the first act I began to sympathise with the comments my friends had made. I stuck it out to the end, of course – I am a stubborn soul and don’t like to be defeated – though the same can’t be said of the people further along our row, who absconded during the interval and simply didn’t come back. True: it’s challenging; but unfortunately, in my opinion, it has too many ideological agendas and too little narrative clarity to be satisfying. 

Purcell’s Indian Queen was first performed in 1695, reworking an earlier play. However, only an hour’s worth of surviving music can be associated with the piece. (Over the weekend I borrowed the recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner from my local library: the entire programme lasts for only 62 minutes). The ENO version, directed by Peter Sellars, pads that out to three hours and forty minutes. Thus, even without the interval, you have two hours and twenty minutes of added stuff to account for. Some of that is other music by Purcell, which one friend described as his ‘greatest hits’, including both secular songs like Sweeter than roses and some of his religious music. This is all well and good; if you have to pad out a composer’s opera then it’s logical to draw on some of his most celebrated works. Much of the music was also played at what seemed (to me) to be a desperately slow pace, giving it an dirge-like air, which probably accounts for a few minutes. 

However, the most significant additions to Purcell’s work are the spoken texts taken from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma (1996) by Rosario Aguilar, performed by an intense, urgent Maritxell Carrero. I haven't read the book, but I understand that it uses imagined histories to retell the story of the Spanish conquest from the intertwined perspectives of six women. The texts chosen for the opera emphasise the sympathy and openness of female settlers' engagement with the New World (embodied here by the character of Doña Isabel). Their desire to assimilate, to create and to understand is juxtaposed, without much nuance, with the ambitions of male settlers / soldiers to dominate, overpower, command and destroy. Subtle it ain't: a more finely-shaded attitude might actually have made for a more engaging story. And yet this socially-conscious narrative is set off by some spoken sections of unexpectedly intense eroticism.* I'm not saying that the ideas in themselves were necessarily poor: simply that they felt like a series of ideological posturings rather than an organically-developing story. 

Women betrayed by men: Techulihuatzin (Julia Bullock) and Noah Stewart (Don Pedro) | Lucy Crowe (Dona Isabel)
Techulihuatzin threatened by the Spanish, but protected by a native deity (Anthony Roth Costanzo)
Now, I don’t like being critical; I’d much rather bounce out of something enthusing about how wonderful it is; but I have to be honest if something leaves me cold. The worst thing is that there were things I liked and wanted to like. The set designs were based on vividly colourful paintings: not the kind of thing I normally enjoy, but which worked extremely well in this context, creating spaces and suggesting the emotional states of the characters. Indeed, all the performers were doing their damnedest with what they’d been given. I found the dancers especially captivating. Through their rhythmic, simple and powerful choreography they evoked Mayan creation myths in the opening scenes and returned throughout the production as embodiments of the native spirits of the New World. Even as their people were forced to accept new overlords and new gods, these ancient spirits continued to appear in dreams and visions: an effective concept. 

And what of the singers? There were some very talented people on that stage and they were almost criminally underused. Take Lucy Crowe as Doña Isabel, for example. She’s one of our most celebrated young sopranos and was the undeniable highlight here. Her glorious silvery soprano was effortlessly spot-on: the most memorable point for me was her exquisite rendition of O solitude, already an established favourite of mine. Julia Bullock as Techulihuatzin / Doña Luisa, the titular Indian Queen, was almost equally impressive. The part was written for her and so she had some powerful moments, brought to life with a gorgeous dusky voice with a rich underlying burr. Mind you, it was announced after the interval that she was suffering from a heavy cold but wished to continue and begged our understanding; perhaps that burr was due to the cold? Still immensely impressive though. Among the men, one in particular stood out. According to the programme, Vince Yi was playing the 'trickster deity' Hunahpú, but on stage he seemed to move between various generic roles. This baffled me slightly because he deserved more. He sang the title role in the tour of Artaserse last year; he's singing Emilia in Vinci's forthcoming Catone; and he has a voice of extraordinary bell-like purity and clarity which is unlike any other countertenor voice out there. But, if I wished that Yi had more to do, that's true to an even greater extent for the promising young tenor Noah Stewart. I hadn't come across Stewart before and certainly didn't know he's had a chart-topping classical album until I did my research afterwards. Here he didn't sing a note until the second half, having spent much of the first half in a state of undress which led me to believe that Don Pedro was a silent role. Once he was allowed to sing, he had a beautiful voice; but why bother getting people of this calibre involved if you're not going to make the most of them? 

Frustratingly there were aspects and concepts that I liked: under other circumstances I might have found it an illuminating interpretation. But I feel there was just simply too much going on and too many competing agendas – an attempt to force Purcell’s music into an ideological straitjacket that didn’t work. It was also much, much too long. I’m not going to be put off Purcell. The music itself was beautiful and much of the singing was very good, especially from those I mention above. I’m just sorry that I can’t be more enthusiastic about the experience as a whole. Now, as I've said, there are many examples of critics being very enthusiastic about this production; in fact, the vast majority are positive - more so, at least, than I am here. See, for example, the 3-star Guardian, and the 4-star Telegraph, while the Evening Standard praises its 'ever-resonant social commentary'. However, specialist sites Classical Iconoclast and Bachtrack are unimpressed, as I was; the latter to the tune of a withering 1 star. It really seems to be a divisive production and ultimately, for me, a unsuccessful one, with Purcell’s music smothered by the imposed narratives of an overly earnest, self-conscious critique of colonial oppression and racial, sexual and religious inequality. 

* In a first draft, I compared this to Purcell meets Fifty Shades of Grey

The chorus brandishing painted signs | Don Pedro troubled by the New World | Dancers accompany the wedding night rites

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Semele: George Frideric Handel (1744)

(Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 10 March 2015)

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Nature to each allots his proper sphere,
But that forsaken, we like meteors err:
Toss'd through the void, by some rude shock we're broke
And all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.
(Chorus: Act 3, Scene 7)

Let the London Handel Festival commence! Things got underway in suitably regal style at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with a tale of divine love that bore a moralistic coda: be careful what you wish for. 

I'll admit that my heart sank on entering the Hall to see wooden cladding similar to that at the Barbican, but the acoustics turned out to be far better, perhaps because the place is that much smaller and we were closer to the stage. The one drawback of this venue is that there were no surtitles. Admittedly the libretto was printed in full in the programme, but not everyone wants to spend a further £5 to find out what’s going on. I do, of course, but having arrived in a rather distracted state of mind, I didn't manage to get hold of a programme until the interval. That meant I spent the first half having to really concentrate on the words (it made me realise, guiltily, how much I normally rely on surtitles). Most of the cast’s diction was extremely clear, thank goodness, but that wasn’t true in every case and I was glad to finally get my hands on the text for Acts 2 and 3. 

We begin with a wedding. That's the plan, anyway. Semele, daughter of Cadmus of Thebes, is going to be married to Athamas, prince of Boeotia. It should be a happy day for her, but instead she's plunged into misery: she has fallen in love with Jupiter and prays desperately to be excused from a life of mundane bliss with sweet but dull Athamas. Her sister Ino is just as downcast. She cherishes a hopeless passion for Athamas and dreads seeing him bestowed on her sister; but what can she do? Everything seems designed to make the sisters unhappy... until it suddenly becomes clear that all is not well at the temple. The priests' sacrifices have been accepted by Juno, goddess of marriage, but the rites are undermined by the distant roll of ominous thunder. The sacred flame flickers, dies and relights. All things point to discord between Jupiter and Juno, and the wedding party flees in terror. When they reconvene, it turns out that Semele has vanished: a magnificent eagle has swooped down from heaven and carried her off. Athamas mourns; Ino dares, at last to hope. And Semele, who finds herself in a magnificent palace, waited on by ‘Loves and Zephyrs’ and with an infatuated god as her lover, revels in her new delights. Unfortunately, however, even Jupiter isn’t free to pursue his amours in peace. His jealous wife Juno all too quickly hears about her new mortal rival and indignantly prepares to strike. As Jupiter tries to divert Semele, Juno – with the help of her confidant Iris and the god of sleep Somnus – hatches a plan which will get this vain, foolish girl out of her way for good. 

Musically I found Semele considerably more enjoyable than Hercules. Its stately overture gave way to splendid choruses, some with drums and trumpets, and playfully elaborate arias. It was, quite simply, fun. But what impressed me most was the way that (at the risk of sounding completely pretentious) Handel paints the scene with his music. Semele was designed to be sung as a concert rather than a staged opera, and the elaborate descriptions of settings in the libretto itself, along with the music, allow the imagination to conjure up what we aren’t actually being shown. There were several points where the music beautifully echoed the imagery in the texts. In the opening scene at Juno’s temple, as the priest announces that ‘The grateful odour swift ascends’, the strings echo the smoke coiling up through the air. Likewise, at the end of Act 1 when Semele is carried off by Jupiter, the eagle’s swooping, soaring flight is described by the strings. I think this is the first time when I’ve noticed so literal a reflection of image in music. All credit to the lively London Handel Orchestra (and, for the rousing choruses, the London Handel Singers), under the baton of Laurence Cummings. 

Stars of the show: Anna Devin (Semele) | Conductor Laurence Cummings (photo by Robert Workman)
Rupert Charlesworth (Jupiter / Apollo)
For me there were two standout singers in the cast and these, appropriately, were Anna Devin as Semele and Rupert Charlesworth in the dual role of Jupiter and Apollo. This Semele was coy and flirtatious, with very fixed ideas of her own deserts, and Devin played the preening for all it was worth, resplendent in a glittering blue evening dress. The most enthusiastically received aria of the evening was Myself I shall adore, in which silly Semele is tricked by Juno into believing that she already possesses the divine beauty of a goddess. This narcissistic masterpiece turned into a very impressive display of coloratura and ornamentation and, as Semele savours her own beauty in the mirror, some of her trills and phrases were ‘mirrored’ by the strings: another clever example of music emphasising content. Charlesworth's Jupiter was less of a bearded stentorian thunderer and more of a debonair romantic. In the virtuosic I must with speed amuse her, mighty Jove comes across as just another nervous man faced with an overly demanding beloved; while in the exquisite Where’er you walk he becomes a tender, dreamy lover: two very different arias, both delivered with elegant poise and complete control. When Charlesworth paused towards the end of Where'er you walk, the entire audience was rapt: even the pernicious coughers and rustlers were silent. Yes: capable of both lively coloratura and blissfully romantic eloquence, this was a voice to be reckoned with. As in Herculesthe audience applauded very little after individual arias, but Devin and Charlesworth sparked the punters into life and spontaneous outbursts of acclamation. 

I enjoyed the rest of the cast although none of them challenged the vocal dominance of the leading pair for me. To pick out just one, Louise Innes turned in a commanding performance as the jealous Juno. She added spice with her habit of breaking the fourth wall and sharing her immense displeasure with the audience, or throwing 'told-you-so' glances at her long-suffering husband sitting on the far side of the stage. I relished her acting more than anyone else's. Although I now see that Ewa Gubanska (Ino) won last year's Handel Singing Competition, I must confess I found her diction a little difficult to follow on occasion; and I didn't gel with Robin Blaze's (Athamas's) voice quite as much as I'd expected to. Maybe it was something to do with the acoustics last night, or maybe I was just in a rather demanding mood, but his voice sounded rather thin. When discussing the performance over a drink afterwards, Dehggial suggested that I was being overly harsh on him (so check out Opera innit? for a bit of love for Athamas). I do have a recording of Blaze singing Pur ti miro very beautifully, so perhaps it just wasn't my night. Besides, Athamas isn't the most exciting role: one's purpose is simply to be the nice guy cast into the shade by the exciting prospect of a divine love affair. As Cadmus prepares to break the news of Semele's abduction by Jupiter, Athamas frets that once again he's going to be put off: Can fate, or Semele, invent another, yet another punishment?’ Poor man. Athamas has obviously never been to an opera otherwise he'd know that he has two further acts to get through before he'll discover whether or not he'll get the girl of his dreams. (And I'm sorry Athamas but, as secondo uomo, your chances are slim.)

However, all things considered, I thought this was a strong start to the Handel Festival. Yes, I always have a preference for staged works (even if they're not meant to be!); but here there was wonderful music, a lively orchestra, a capable cast, and two voices in particular that I'll be looking out for in the future. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed it even more if we'd had more intensely dramatic acting, like Alice Coote's tour-de-force in last week's Hercules, but here the cast were at least interacting and conveying the emotions of their characters, which isn't always the case in a concert performance. 

We've got a lot more coming up over the next few weeks: the next full-length extravaganza is going to be Handel's pasticcio version of Catone in Utica, taking place next Tuesday. Shamelessly cobbled together from works by other composers, with arias snaffled from settings by Hasse, Porpora and my beloved Vinci, that promises to be a thrilling night.

Team Handel: George Humphreys (Cadmus / Somnus) | Louise Innes (Juno) | Maria Valdmaa (Iris)
Ewa Gubanska (Ino) | Robin Blaze (Athamas) (photo by Will Unwin)

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album

(Courtauld Gallery, London, until 25 May 2015)

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El sueño de la razon produce monstruos
The sleep of reason produces monsters

A man slumps at a table, his head buried in his arms. As he dreams, the dark creatures of his imagination rise out of the shadows behind him: a lynx, which looks up with wide eyes; bats, flocking in the darkness, and owls which mob the sleeping figure with their wings and steal his artist's tools. This etching, made in 1799, forms part of Goya's print series Los Caprichos and was originally conceived as an allegorical self-portrait. For all of mankind's pretensions to reason and rationality in this Enlightened age, Goya seems to say, we only have to sleep for our primal nightmares to come crawling out of the woodwork.

This print, still in its original album (now in the British Museum), offers a telling image to open the Courtauld's new exhibition of drawings from Goya's Witches and Old Women album (also called Album D). Goya made this sequence of drawings early in the 19th century, around 1819-23. For the last fifty years intellectual elites had been striving for an Enlightened Europe, ruled by philosophy, scientific enquiry and reason rather than bound by superstition. But Goya and his contemporaries might well question what Reason had achieved. In the last thirty years they had seen the turbulence of the French Revolution, the Republic, the Empire and Napoleon's fall. Europe had been ravaged by war. Spain itself had suffered the savageries of French oppression after the Dos de Mayo rising in 1808, the miseries of the Peninsular War and then the regression of the Bourbon restoration. Goya, as court painter to the kings of Spain, saw much of this at first hand. His bewilderment and isolation must have been increased by the fact that by this date he was deaf, as the result of a life-threatening illness, and so the world must have had a further layer of confusion. Unable to express his emotions in his public works, he took to making drawings in notebooks, which were later bound as albums. These became a private, personal commentary on the world he saw around him, bitterly satirising not only its social and political upheavals, but also the unchanging fears and foibles of human nature. Nowadays the drawings are dispersed among various collections and this exhibition marks the first time that anyone has reassembled an entire album. The Album D drawings are displayed (in the order of the reconstructed album) alongside drawings from the Black Border Album (Album E; 1816-20) which show similar themes, and with some of the early lithographs that Goya was making at the same date. The series is introduced by a selection of prints from Los Caprichos and thematically related drawings from his later Bordeaux Albums (Albums G and H; 1825-28). As usual for Courtauld shows, it makes for a tightly-focused and very rewarding exhibition.

The sleep of reason produces monsters | Regozijo (Mirth) | Pesadilla (Nightmare) | Mala mujer (Wicked woman)
Even in his paintings Goya is generally a challenging artist, but the drawings offer a particularly vivid and haunting glimpse into his troubled soul. Displayed in order, the drawings take on greater meaning as you follow Goya's themes and thought processes. His intentions are never entirely clear - his iconography is immensely personal and bound up with proverb and folklore - but each image becomes more understandable as part of a whole: figures rise and fall, tumbling in the air, and then give way to scenes of witchcraft and sleep, dreams and nightmares, rounding off with a series of wizened old women who might be pious devotees, bawds or witches still. Some of the drawings are energetic and almost joyous, like the delightful Regozijo (Mirth), where a pair of cackling old figures dance in mid-air to the clatter of castanets. Others, like Pesadilla (Nightmare) give the frustrating feeling of a meaning fluttering just out of reach: a grinning old women carries two scrawny old men on her shoulders, piled up like a troupe of acrobats. And some are deeply disturbing: the skeletal old hag in Mala majer (Wicked woman) who raises her skull-like face to peer out at us, about to devour the baby which hangs spreadeagled in her grip. Was this inspired by a 17th-century Spanish witchcraft trial, as the label suggests? Could it have a more political sense: a war-torn country devouring its own future? In many ways Goya is so fascinating - and troubling - precisely because his intentions remain so mysterious despite all our efforts to untangle them.

I've seen a handful of Goya drawings in the flesh before, but to see the album reassembled in this show struck me all over again with the sheer brilliance of his technique. He is always fluid and free: thought seems to coalesce straight into form. Sinuous thick black ink outlines, drawn with the brush, are filled with translucent veils of grey wash, the white of the paper used to great effect for highlights. He also often went back at the end and added more highlights by scraping away at the surface with a razor. The final effect is often dazzling and simply can't be appreciated from illustrations, especially when the paper is still in very good condition, as is the case with Regozijo in particular. And seeing the drawings at close quarters emphasises other things too: Goya's immense humanity, for example. He might be drawing diabolical scenes or satirising old age - these crones and witches and bent old men - but these images aren't purely horrific. His dancing airborne figures often have expressions of such glee that you can't help but smile: look at the haggard old witch pulling the hair of her younger companion in Bajan riñendo (They descend quarrelling). And his elderly figures, fumbling at rosaries in No se lebantara... (She won't get up...) or bent heavily over sticks in No puede ya con los 98 años (Just can't go on at the age of 98), are shown with immense sympathy. Speaking of the elderly, a special mention has to go to Habla con su gato (She talks to her cat), where the cat is masterfully suggested with only a few light sweeps of grey wash.

This is a simple but very powerful show: certainly one to look out for if you already enjoy Goya, or if you're interested by the Gothic and the supernatural. The catalogue includes proper entries on all the drawings as well as a table detailing the condition of each sheet along with any inscriptions or marks; there are essays setting the exhibition in the context of Goya's life, his printmaking and the themes which arise in his work, and a discussion of the process of reconstructing the album. To be honest, even if you can't get to see the exhibition, the catalogue alone promises to be a very useful reference point. And if you find the album drawings as intriguing as I do, you might want to look out for the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in 2001, Goya: Drawings from his private albums, which includes a few of the Album D sheets alongside drawings from Goya's other series. But for now, if you can make it to Somerset House before the end of May, do go and enjoy these wonderful, vivacious drawings for yourself.

Bajan riñendo | No puede ya con los 98 años | Habla con su gato | The Courtauld's own Cantar y bailar

Friday, 6 March 2015

Hercules: George Frideric Handel (1745)

(The English Concert directed by Harry Bicket at the Barbican, 4 March 2015)

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Alice Coote: a superb Dejanira
Six months into my Baroque voyage of discovery, it'll soon be time to jump in at the deep end for the London Handel Festival. From fully-staged operas to concerts, solo recitals and pasticci, the next month will offer a veritable banquet of Handel in all his forms. Before the Festival proper gets underway with Semele next week*, the first item on my menu was an oddity: Hercules, first performed in 1745 when Handel had moved away from the Italian operas with which he'd made his name and was writing oratorios, better calculated to appeal to English taste. Hercules sits uneasily between the classical themes of Italian opera and the oratorio format of the (largely Biblical) new works Handel was producing for his London audience. It's neither fish nor fowl and, for a newcomer (as, perhaps, for Handel's own public), that can prove challenging.

What to expect from a tale of Hercules? It could well have been a rambunctious comedy about the hero's love life; but Handel chooses something very different. He focuses on the end of the legend. Hercules (Matthew Rose) returns home to his palace in Thessaly in triumph, laden with the spoils of victory. Fragile and isolated, his wife Dejanira (Alice Coote) has been waiting: less placid than Penelope, increasingly convinced that her long-absent husband must be dead. His return throws her into a tumult of joy; but that is short-lived. One of Hercules' captives is the lovely Iole, princess of Oechalia (Elizabeth Watts); and no sooner has Dejanira laid eyes on her than she begins to wonder. What hold does this virginal beauty have over her husband? Denials are in vain. The green-eyed monster has Dejanira in its grip, leading her to a desperate, fatally misguided attempt to reclaim her husband's love. Circling this tragic trio are Hercules' and Dejanira's son Hyllus (James Gilchrist), who pines with unrequited love for Iole; and Hercules' loyal herald Lichas (Rupert Enticknap).

Reviews from every leg of this concert tour have been hugely positive and indeed I have nothing but praise for the performances of the musicians of the English Concert and the talented singers. However, I confess I wasn't hugely won over by the music itself. Perhaps it just shows that my head is easily turned by the flashy and the flamboyant, but I found Hercules considerably more demanding to listen to than something like Serse, which it postdates by only seven years. Hercules obliges you to concentrate: it expects you to work at it. I can well imagine why Handel's first audiences found it so difficult (it received only two performances in January 1745): the opening is unremittingly bleak. It only springs to life with Dejanira's Begone my fears; and in the entire piece there was no melody that lodged itself in my head. Having said that, there were plenty of moments which struck me, primarily because the cast and orchestra skilfully drew out the drama of the music. For example, the final chorus of the first part - 'Jealousy, infernal pest' - captured me with its crisp articulation and measured, slow-paced beat, which lent it the appropriately ominous feel of a hangman's drum. The martial paean preceding Hercules' triumphant entrance was also a stirring moment, but that's primarily because I'm a simple soul and if you give me a rousing chorus accompanied by trumpets then I'm happy. But there were two performances in particular where this 'English opera', for me, flourished into life.

Harry Bicket | Bicket with members of The English Concert
If dazzling vocal elaboration impressed me in the recent Oracolo, then Hercules balanced the scales with some powerful emotional engagement from its two female leads. Alice Coote, who was the first singer I saw live in a Baroque opera (ENO's Xerxes back in September), turned in a veritable tour-de-force of gnawing jealousy as the troubled Dejanira. Her acting, which was initially (appropriately) restrained, blossomed in Begone my fears and her expressive, mobile features came to life. Armed with opera glasses, I spent much of the time watching her face as Dejanira's riot of emotions tumbled across it: grief dispelled by joy; girlish light-heartedness; and then, slowly, insidiously, the rising tide of envy. While most of her colleagues sang from their music stands, Coote effectively gave a semi-staged performance and the real high points came in the second half, where she drew every shade of dramatic feeling out of her two big scenes, both of which brought the house down.** 

The first of these was the wonderful Resign thy club, in which the music itself echoed the relentless, needling nagging of martial discord. Matthew Rose sat back in his chair looking weary and sullen with one foot resting on the opposite knee, the very image of a henpecked husband, while Coote gradually whipped herself up into a shrewish frenzy, whirling back and forth. Her mockery was echoed by the sudden dragged-out yowl of violins underscoring her complaints about Cupid, the 'whining boy', which made me laugh. And visually the scene was played for humour too: Coote's dynamic, indignant, coiled energy suddenly brought up against Rose's towering figure. (A similar impact to the physical stand-off between Rose's Seneca and Sarah Connolly's Nero in Poppea.) And if this scene was played well, the same or more is true of the mad scene. Where shall I fly? was the only piece of music I knew in advance*** and Coote carried it off superbly. Veering from cold horror into frenzied visions of Furies and serpents, she punctuated it with moments of almost fearful yearning. "Hide me!" was breathed, as a sudden halt to the tumult of imagination - and then she swept back into an insanity that bordered on hysteria. This was a woman convincingly unhinged by grief. It's a long scene and much of it is recitative but Coote kept everyone absolutely gripped. Spiralling from throbbing low tones to the odd piercing high note, she overcame the Barbican's dodgy acoustics without seeming even to try; and yet there were moments when her notes were almost whispered: as fine and delicate as cobwebs. Her fine singing was very much bound to her emotions, which added to the dramatic impact of the character. Dejanira is a grand, almost Shakespearean role, I think - her misguided jealousy echoes that of Othello and there were shades of Hamlet or Lear in her recitatives. I was very impressed: we were very, very lucky to have seen so consummate an actress in the role.

My other high point was Elizabeth Watts. I'd been looking forward to seeing her live, having got to know her voice through the CD of Arne's Artaxerxes (another Mandane!), and she rewarded my anticipation: her voice a velvety dark soprano and her performance as deeply felt as Coote's. Iole doesn't have as many chances to show fire, but Watts turned in some gorgeous gentler arias, such as the heartbreaking Peaceful rest, and the bucolic How blest the maid. I'm never quite convinced by high-born characters longing to be humble shepherds, but Watts sang with some lovely rippling notes which echoed the bubbling of the streams and springs referenced in the aria. She was another one I watched closely with the opera glasses: when she was out of her seat, her face always reflected exactly the right emotions, whether she was singing or not; and her grief and torment were palpable. When she sang My breast with tender pity swells she seemed to take her identification with the character to the point of tears; I don't know if they were real or not, from that distance, but the point is that I believed them to be. However, Iole does have a moment of greater vocal splendour in the dramatic Ah! think what ills the jealous prove at the end of the first part; and Watts was excellent, with a commanding high note on one of her Adieus that thrilled me to the bone. I long to see her in a more imperious role: I'll have to keep an eye on her schedule.

Matthew Rose (Hercules) | Elizabeth Watts (Iole) | James Gilchrist (Hyllus) | Rupert Enticknap (Lichas)
In the face of such towering performances from the two ladies, the men seemed slightly overshadowed; and I say that despite Rose's Seneca having been one of the reasons I bought this ticket in the first place. (Me! Booking a ticket on account of a bass! I can feel the shockwaves going through you now.) I was happy to finally hear a little more of Enticknap, whom I recently encountered in Vivaldi's Oracolo. His Lichas doesn't have a huge amount to do, but his big moment is the long recitative in the final act which reports Hercules' fate: here he sang with sombre grace and a sense of growing horror which I found very effective. As Hyllus, James Gilchrist was vocally striking with a light tenor that was surprisingly agile. I'm not used to hearing such lively coloratura from tenors and so it sounded strange to my ears at first, though it grew on me. However, I don't think I'll offend anyone by pointing out that visually he didn't quite convince as Coote's and Rose's son; although he certainly did suggest an air of youthful shyness and self-deprecation. Indeed, there were moments where his Hyllus seemed almost neurotic, with his nervous gestures echoing the fluttering coloratura of his voice.

By now I shouldn't be surprised that Rose, playing the title character, had relatively little to do: despite the title, there's no doubt that Dejanira is the musical and emotional heart of this piece. Nevertheless he had some fine moments and I thought again - as I did in Poppea - that compared to other basses I've heard, he seems to have a lot of richness and colour in his tones. He has some swaggering coloratura here, very appropriate to such a character as Hercules, and his stand-out aria for me was the deliciously self-aggrandising Alcides' name in ancient story. Even here, though, Coote's reaction shots stole the show: she perched at the edge of the stage peering back with growing disbelief at her husband's pompous catalogue of his glories.

So: what to make of this curious piece? For the singing and the musicianship I was conscious that I was in extremely good hands, and yet the music itself left me a little cold, for which I can only point the finger at Handel himself. Other reviews by more knowledgeable people have been so enthusiastic that I'm sure I'm missing something, but I felt that large parts of it were slightly too long and slightly too heavy. That said, it's no bad thing to have to work at appreciating something once in a while: I can't always have bravura sparkle handed to me on a plate, much as I love it. And even though certain parts of it were challenging, I had the joy of watching Alice Coote in full dramatic flow, and the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth Watts in the flesh. These two splendid women dominated; and it looks likely that my main legacy of the evening will be a renewed determination to see them tackle other roles in the Baroque canon.

* Many thanks to a friend for pointing out that this wasn't actually part of the Handel Festival: it's simply a very serendipitous coincidence that it's scheduled the week before. It really is perfect timing.

** As a newbie, I was surprised that no one applauded after the arias in the first part. There were certainly some which deserved it; and I wondered if this was due to differing audience traditions between the opera and the oratorio type - the gentleman next to me didn't applaud once, save at the interval and the curtain call. However, in the second part the audience suddenly woke up and there were several cases where individual arias met with applause.

*** It was one of the arias in focus during Sarah Connolly's Insights masterclass at the Royal Opera House, which I attended a few weeks ago.
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