The third and final instalment of my Versailles concert extravaganza came in the form of the marvellous Giulio Cesare (Jules César). Cesare is probably Handel's best known opera. He had, at his disposal, an awesome array of singers, including the star castrato Senesino, sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Margherita Durastanti, contralto Anastasia Robinson (who had once been a soprano before an illness caused her voice to drop significantly), and the castrato Gaetano Berenstadt, who made a habit of playing villains. The calibre of the performers was mirrored in the excellence of the composition, with some of the most demanding writing, both technically and emotionally, of all Handel's operas.
The title role at Versailles was taken by the formidable contralto Sonia Prina. Her potent delivery of the rage aria "Empio, dirò, tu sei" at the beginning of the opera showed us exactly what to expect from her performance that evening: excellence! Taken at breakneck speed, Prina's control was astounding: the runs were note perfect, and the lower passaggio was negotiated with security. If any proof of her contralto credentials were required, her G3 at the end of the B section, and her cavernous F3 at the end of the aria were proofs enough. "Va tacito e nascosto" had Prina in her element: her dark tone adding the gravitas to the aria it requires. The military tenor of the aria was a perfect vehicle for Prina's strong dynamic style. All credit to the horn player, Ermes Pecchinini, for getting through the hellish horn part.
For me, the most spectacular aria of the whole performance was “Al lampo dell’armi,” which Prina sang at an unbelievable speed, and performed the coloratura with pin-point precision. As with most of her arias, Prina made some wonderful dives deep into the chest register, to G3 or below. It is wonderful to hear ornamentation which celebrates the strengths of the contralto voice. "Quel torrente" was pure joy to listen to, with Prina at her most imperial. The lines were faultless, and her presence on stage during the aria was all Caesar! One extra point to mention was the beautiful duet with Cleopatra (Maria Grazia Schiavo), "Caro, più amabile beltà." When Schiavo ornamented high into the head register, Prina responded with beautiful descending phases into the lower contralto zone. A fantastic performance, and one which will stay in my mind as the performance to live up to. I can't wait to see her at the Wigmore Hall in November.
Maria Grazia Schiavo's Cleopatra was a joy to listen to: finally we have someone who combines the youthful flirtations of Cleopatra the woman, with the machinations and strategic opportunism of the Cleopatra the stateswoman. Her characterisation was alive, vibrant and powerful, and the interplay with Prina was great to watch: the two of them very much ‘in character’ throughout the performance. The interpolated high note at the end of her first aria, “Priva son d’ogni conforto,” was stunning, and gave us an indication of what was to come. Her tone was a sparkly, yet full-bodied and luscious soprano, which was impressive in both the slower and the faster arias allocated to the Egyptian Queen.
Schiavo's “V’adoro pupille” was a masterclass in seduction from the moment she sauntered, tantalisingly to her stand. Her tender phrasing, generous sound, and refined movements were utterly captivating. Noelia Reverte's romantic playing on her beautiful, dark red viola da gamba added to the already bewitching atmosphere of the piece. By contrast, the dark “Se pietà di me non senti” was handled with such pathos that many of the audience who spoke to me after the concert mentioned how sublimely it had been performed. The opening lines of "Piangerò la sorte mia" were indefinably beautiful, and were contrasted by the vigorous singing and playing in the B section. In her final aria, “Da tempeste il legno infranto,” Schiavo erupted into joyous coloratura and ebullient ornamentation. She gave it her all, and won a huge round of applause in the process.
Originally written for the soprano Margherita Durastanti, the role of Sesto in this production was taken by sopranist Paolo Lopez. What a voice! Lopez has a fantastic beauty of tone at the upper extremity of the range, which has a more "soprano" sound than that of most counter-tenors I have heard. Lopez's "Cara speme" was utterly beautiful, while "Svegliatevi nel core" was delightful, with real rage coming through. His confidence above the stave was matched with a well integrated modal transition. "L'angue offeso mai riposa" was again performed with intensity and courage, with many exposed G5's negotiated expertly, and Lopez took the nasty 1.5 octave leap to G5 in his stride. I thought, not being very well acquainted with the sopranist fach, that there would be difficulties maintaining continuity of tone across the voice into the "soprano" register, while transitions into the modal voice would cause a destabilisation of the middle register. I was wrong. Lopez managed the transitions from modal to falsetto with immense skill, and retained both beauty and strength in the middle to lower falsetto registers. Lopez thus sounded more akin to a mezzo-soprano, with its three integrated registers, than a falsettist with a distinct modal transition. An exciting performance, which saw Lopez dominate his arias.
The role of Cornelia was performed by mezzo-soprano Anna Rita Gemmabella, whose mournful, dark voice complemented the sorrowful arias Handel composed for this role. The heart-breaking aria "Priva son d'ogni conforto" was a delight to listen to, with Gemmabella making full use of the emotional libretto to express the suffering of her character. Her singing during the recitatives and ariosos was very much full of pathos and sincere grief, and her performance in the third act was very powerful. The duet between her and Lopez, "Son nata a lagrimar/Son nato a sospirar" was enchanting. Their two voices worked marvellously together; the high male and low female contrasting and complementing each other. At one point, Gemmabella was singing an octave below Lopez! The unaccompanied parts were the most beautiful, where we could hear the two timbres of the singers as they wove together.
Sergio Foresti gave a very solid performance as Achilla. His first aria, "Tu sei il cor di questo core" was very confidently executed, with him negotiating the F4's very well, keeping the tone all the way down to the lower chest register: no bottoming out here! The fast coloratura of "Dal fulgor di questa spada" was very good, each note distinct, and no fudging or slurring. Benedetta Mazzucato's Nireno was well conceived, using the recitatives to bring out Nireno’s character. Giuseppe Esposito's large-voiced Curio was certainly present! His interactions with Prina during their recitatives were considered and relevant. It was a shame both he and Mazzucato didn't have more to do to display their vocal skills. I would like to hear more of them in the future. I would also like to add that Ottavio Dantone's direction of the orchestra, Accademia Bizantina, was superb, as was their performance. Simply put - a blistering performance of Cesare! I only hope the performance was recorded. How wonderful it would be if the same cast could be involved in a staged performance of Cesere!
As part of the "Triumph of Handel" festival at the Palace of Versailles, the world famous mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, gave two concerts in the Galerie des Glaces: Handel's Heroines and Sacrificium. Bartoli's involvement with the works of Handel is long-standing, as is her relationship with Baroque music in general. This year, she has taken the role of Artistic Director of the Easter Festival in Salzburg, which she is dedicating to Cleopatra, the heroine of Handel's Giulio Cesare, whose role she will play in the staged version. She returns to Versailles and the Galerie des Glaces after two excellent evenings devoted to Vivaldi last year. The excitement before the concert was palpable, with people flying over just for this concert.
Bartoli's opener was the ferocious "Furie terribili" from Rinaldo. Furious it was, with Bartoli unleashing the imps of Hell with this devastating rendition. Antonini's direction was flawless, with the players of Il Giardino Armonico tearing into the music. Bartoli incorporated the wind machine and thunder sheet she used to such great effect in her Barbican Concert in 2010, to even greater effect in the haunting acoustic of the Galerie des Glaces. Bartoli's ability to move between extremes of emotion with little or no time to prepare became apparent with the haunting "Dunque, i lacci d'un volto...Ah crudel!" again from Rinaldo: the A section slow and haunting, the B section fast and raging. One of the things Bartoli does so well is large jumps between the registers, and arpeggios/melismas which take her through the three registers: This she demonstrated wonderfully with the joyous "Scherza in mar la navicella" from Lotario.
The next segment of the concert came from Giulio Cesare. First, Il Giardino Armonico gave us a rousing rendition of the Overture: stately, regal and measured in the Introduction, and fast, vibrant and wild in the fugue. The second piece was one of the three highlights of the evening: Cleopatra's "Se Pietà di me non senti." As the first chords of that most mournful of arias floated through the Galerie des Glaces, the Sun, which was in the process of setting, metamorphosed into a baleful red/orange eye, bathing the Galerie in its sorrowful rays, and rendering the crystals of the chandeliers into tears of blood. It was in this atmosphere that Bartoli poured forth all the grief and despair of Cleopatra, believing as she does, she will never see her beloved Cesare again. The B section, with its phrases rising high in the voice, was particularly moving. By the end of the aria, the sun had set, along with Cleopatra's dreams.
The last segment before the interval was an interesting mix: two pieces from "Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno" and one from "Teseo." Il Giardino Armonico were quite frankly excellent during theOverture of "Il trionfo" and particulary praise must go to the dueting violinists for an inspired performance. If we didn't think we could feel any more sorrow than we did during "Se Pietà" we were wrong: Bartoli gave us "Lascia la spina." She took the aria slowly, giving each phrase time to breath, to grow and to draw us in. The high, gossamer-like pianissimo phrases in the B section were so filled with despair - we needed saving! So Bartoli ended the first half of the concert with the magnificent "M'adora l'idol mio" from Teseo. Her formidable runs and playful ornamentation were delightful, and the imitative melismas between Bartoli and the Oboe were delightful.
After the interval, we were treated to the idyllic, pastoral "Felicissima quest'alma" from Apollo e Dafne. Bartoli was at her most youthful and innocent in this charming aria, each phrase lightly delivered, with her trademark delicate pianissimos in evidence throughout the piece. The next aria could not have been more contrasting: "Si, vendetta... Pugneran con noi le stelle" from Rodrigo. Trills, runs and fast arpeggios abound in this military-sounding piece. The speed with which Bartoli fired off the coloratura passages was phenomenal, and all with such apparent ease. She even managed to tell someone off for filming during one of the most difficult sections using charade-style hand gestures! We were then treated to an Overture by Francesco Maria Veracini, his No. 6 in G Minor. Giovanni Anotnini drew out some fantastic sounds from Il Giardino Armonico, who played and moved like a flock of birds, completely together, like one organism.
The final section of the concert began with the third act symphony from Alcina, followed by the devastating "Ah! mio cor." The heartache of the spurned witch-queen was brought to life so vividly by Bartoli, that there were people crying in the audience. The high lying phrases were touched so tenderly, lightly, that they seem to have an ethereal quality not of this world. Bartoli attacked the B section with passion, providing an amazing contrast with the first part of the aria. It was an amazing performance. We were then treated to the third act march from Giulio Cesare, before Bartoli ended with "Desterò dall'empia Dite" from Amadigi. The duet between the Thibaud Robinne on the trumpet and Pier Luigi Fabretti on the oboe was fabulous, while Bartoli's tempestuous rendition of this very demanding aria was out of this world. The roar that came from the audience was well deserved.
We were treated to three encores, the first of which had Giovanni Antonini duetting with Bartoli on his recorder. The second encore was the da capo section of Cleopatra's aria "Da Tempeste" from Giulio Cesare. Her ornamentation was perfectly chosen, highlighting and complementing the original composition nicely. The speed at which she took the aria reminded me of just how frighteningly accurate her coloratura capacity actually is. What was lovely was that she really seems to enjoy singing this aria, and that came across in her delivery. As the time drew towards midnight, we wondered if we were going to have any further encores. Bartoli came out one last time, and serenaded us with the appropriately named "O sleep" from Semele. Accompanied by just the harpsichord and solo cello, the simplicity of the aria was sublime in Bartoli's expert hands. So beautiful were the languid phrases, that there was a slight pause after the aria before we started to applaud: it was as though the whole room were returning from some far off place.
The whole experience was absolutely amazing. Bartoli's artistry and the stunning Galerie des Glaces combined to produce an atmosphere I doubt I will experience again. Even the sun played its part, so befitting in the Palace of the Sun King. All images © James Edward Hughes 2012.
The Château de Versailles in France is currently hosting a festival titled "The Triumph of Handel". I spent four days there to experience some of the performances for myself, and to let you all know about the wonderful work they are doing to promote this excellent Baroque composer. The first performance I attended was a concert version of the opera Alcina. Alcina is an opera full of exciting music and powerful characterisation, charting the emotional and psychological breakdown of a once all-powerful sorceress, as she loses her control of her lover, her island, and ultimately her magical powers. As such, it is one of Handel’s most engaging works.
For more information about the opera, please see my previous review of Alcina from a performance at the Barbican in 2010.
The title role was taken by soprano Karina Gauvin. Her rich, generous voice, coupled with her strong, vibrant chest register, made her an exciting Alcina. Encompassing the full range of human emotion, the role of Alcina is one which requires complete submersion into the character by the artist. This is not easy to do in a normal production, let alone a concert performance, where the full drama of a staged performance is lacking. Gauvin was more than able to wring every last drop of feeling from her arias, and from the recitatives where she interacted with the other characters.
From her first aria, the love-struck “Di, cor mio,” to her final, calamitous cry of “O noi perdute!” Gauvin’s characterisation was sincere and intense. Her lightness of voice in “Si, son quella” was mesmerising, with some very touching pauses on the exposed notes above the stave, such as in the phrase “se amar tu non me vuoi”. Ophélie Gallard’s accompaniment on the ‘cello was beautiful, wonderfully played and very moving. “Ah! Mio cor” was truly chilling, with Christophe Rousset’s direction bringing out the stabbing rhythm mercilessly in the A section. Gauvin brought out the conflicting emotions of the “wronged” woman in the A section and the ruthless witch-queen in the B section with vivid intensity.
The long lines of coloratura in “Ombra pallide” were dispatched easily by Gauvin, taking the ebb and flow of the lines with security and well-conceived dynamics. Her excellent breath-control and phrasing helped build the tension of this dark aria, which showed the witch-queen at her most unstable and insecure. “Ma quando tornerai” was all bluster and vengeance in the A section, while the B section was so needy and desperate that one could hardly believe that once all powerful sorceress had ever existed. Her heart-breaking final aria, “Mi restanto le lagrime,” brought a sincere round of applause from us in the audience.
Ann Hallenberg’s Ruggiero was a revelation. Her playful lyricism was evident in the touching “La bocca vaga,” while her beauty of tone and intuitive phrasing made the simple yet gorgeous “Mi lusinga” all the more elegant. Hallenberg’s most moving aria was “Verdi prati.” I can honestly say I have never heard a better version. The warmth of Hallenberg’s voice, coupled with her fantastic use of dynamics, made this a pleasure to listen to. It takes a very good singer to make an aria this straightforward rhythmically, and with respect to range, stand out and hold its own compared to the more dynamic arias in the opera. Hallenberg is such a singer.
The big aria for Hallenberg, and of the opera, is “Sta nell'ircana.” Written for the star castrato Carestini, it is one of the most challenging arias in all of Handel’s operas. Ranging from B3 to G5, running across the three registers, and with many parts lying low in the middle register, it is often an aria which can cause registration problems, resulting in vocal barking or cracking, or a loss of breath control as a consequence of pushing too hard in the lower middle register to create volume. This was not a problem for Hallenberg, her flawless technique giving her the ability to negotiate the difficult passages with apparent ease. Her ornamentation in the da capo was stunning, resulting in a rapturous applause from us in the audience.
The show was stolen, for me, by the ferocious singing of contralto Delphine Galou, in the role of Bradamante. Galou has a beautiful, silky dark tone, which she uses to tremendous effect in slower arias, and a fabulous coloratura capability which invigorates faster ones. She received a huge round of applause for her dazzling rendition of “E’ gelosia,” her first aria of the evening. The fury with which she delivered her phrases, and the speed and agility showed on the coloratura lines, brought the aria to life magnificently. Galou’s characterisation was excellently done, continuing even while sitting on her chair, reacting in character to the other performers. But the best was yet to come.
The killer aria in the role of Bradamante is “Vorrei vendicarmi.” Handel wrote the aria for the great contralto Maria Caterina Negri (1), who sang in no less than 11 of Handel’s operas. As the orchestra started to play, Galou set her shoulders, took a deep breath, and launched in to the most vigorous and dynamic performance of this aria I have ever heard. The high-octane coloratura and the vehemence of the delivery combined to blow our socks off. In the da capo, Galou set off with a reckless abandon, running well below the stave at points. Praise should also go to Gautier Blondel, the sole Contrabassist, who managed to power out the rumbling bass line superbly. Galou’s final aria, “All’ alma fedel” was full of smooth legato singing – a pleasure to listen to.
Monica Piccinini's high, light soprano was well cast for the role of Morgana, Alcina's sister. In her major aria, "Tornami a vagheggiar," she floated above the stave easily, each staccato note lightly touched like a bell. I think there was also a D6 thrown in for good measure! The long held notes in "Ama, sospira" were solid and easily negotiated. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro has the light, sweet tenor which makes the role of Oronte such a pleasure to listen to. His lyricism was evident throughout the concert, and he produce a wonderful rendition of "Un momento di contento," which won him heart-felt applause.
Olivier Lallouette was a solid Melisso, dispatching "Pensa a chi geme d'amor piagata" very convincingly. Erika Escribá-Astaburuaga was excellent in the role of Oberto, the only shame being that "Barbara; io ben lo sò" was cut short. I would definitely like to her more of her in the future. Les Talens Lyriques, under the baton of Christophe Rousset, produced a performance which shone. Their cohesion as a group, and their vibrant delivery, gave the opera a vitality which it can sometimes lack with a less dynamic orchestra and conductor. The high standard of the performers and the stunning location made this, for me, one of the most memorable performances I have attended.
(1) Negri was famous for refusing to honour a one of her contracts, resisting even as grenadiers barricaded her home and threatened arrest!