Last year, at the Barbican, I was lucky enough to get a stalls seat near the front at a concert of forgotten castrati arias performed by Cecilia Bartoli to promote her Sacrificium album. It was a fantastic evening, with Bartoli exhibiting some inhumanly fast coloratura, phrases lasting over 30 seconds, and pinpoint pianissimos. A couple of weeks later, I noticed she was to perform another selection of Baroque arias this December, focusing on Handel. Out came the credit card, and a week later I was the proud owner of a ticket. Having waited a year to see this concert, I wondered if anything could match the brilliance of the Sacrificium selection: I pleased to say that not only did she match it, she even managed to improve on it.
Billed as "Handel and his Rivals", the "Rivals" in question were the musical directors and composers associated with the "Opera of the Nobility", a company set up by a group of nobles in the court of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick hated his parents, King George II and Queen Caroline of Ansbach, to the extent that he opposed them in almost everything they did. This situation probably arose due to the prolonged separation between parents and child, which lead to George and Caroline to refer to him as a "foundling"! Anyway, he setup an opera company to rival Handel's, as Handel was much loved by the King and Queen.
The first musical director of the Opera of the Nobility was Nicola Porpora. Porpora's opening gambit with the Opera of the Nobility was the Opera Adrianna in Naxo: it was a huge success. Poropra had managed to poach several of Handel's former singers, including Senesino, Montagnana and Cuzzoni, to perform, and he also, in later years, was able to lure Farinelli and Caffarelli, his former students, to England as well. Francesco Maria Veracini was another composer invited by the company. He produced many orchestral compositions, and a few not-so-hot operas. Even Johann Adolf Hasse had been approached to take up a post, though according to Julie Anne Sadie's "Companion to Baroque Music", Hasse: "declined, perhaps partly out of deference to Handel, whom he had met in 1729." (I knew there was a reason I liked Hasse so much) Anyway, Porpora eventually left for Venice in 1736, the Opera of the Nobility went into bankruptcy, and it was dissolved in 1737.
Bartoli's latest few projects have all been called "historically informed" (take for instance the Sacrificium and Malibran projects, or the current productions of Belini's Norma) and "Handel and his Rivals" is no different. One nice touch was her decision to start the concert with the Overture to, and arias from, the opera Rinaldo. Handel's first opera for the English public, Rinaldo premiered in London on 24 Feburary 1711, featuring two of the leading castrati of the age, the famous Nicolo Grimaldi, and Valentino Urbani. It contains arias such as "Lascia ch'io pianga", "Venti, turbini" and "Cara sposa". Rinaldo was a huge success, and prompted Handel to decide (in 1712) to stay in England permanently (he even applied for naturalisation in 1727).
The concert itself almost began with a disaster, as the violin principal, Julia Schroder, almost ended up on the floor after tripping on her platform. Luckily it was only her papers that went flying! After a rousing performance of the Rinaldo Overture by the Basel Chamber Orchestra, Ms Bartoli bounded on stage in a stunning black, figure-hugging dress, complete with sparkly bracelet, earrings and tiara, and gigantic heals. It was a perfect combination for her first number, also from Rinaldo: the sorceress Armida's "Furie terribili". Accompanied by a wind machine, and metal sheet (which a young man dressed in black thwacked about to produce the thunderclaps), Bartoli wowed the audience with this firecracker of an opener. With its Furioso speed marking, "Furie terribili" is the sorceress Armida's call to her furies to come to her, and trail terror in her wake. Bartoli performed perfectly, raging at the audience, scowling at the poor man thwacking the metal sheet, and all the while subtly conducting the orchestra with a look or gesture. It was a formidable opener, which in the hands of a lesser artist could have gone horribly wrong. For Bartoli though it set the scene for what was to be a powerful concert.
Next up was was "Dunque i Lacci... Ah! crudel", also from Rinaldo. Here Armida is torn between loving her handsome captive, and wanting her furies to "Arise... and discover new types of pain and punishment". Nice! The accompanied recitative "Dunque i Lacci" sets the scene perfectly, with the orchestra moving between long held notes and fiery bursts of semiquaver rumblings. Key to the introduction of the aria is the phrase "Ah, my feeble heart, can you shelter a traitor still?" It is this quandary around which the aria "Ah! crudel" revolves, with its mournful, pining A section, and its fast, furious B section. It is a perfect aria for Bartoli, as it contrasts her outstanding pianissimo and breath control with her machine-gun coloratura. A copy of the score is available here.
The best example of Bartoli's beautiful, well-supported pianissimo, combined with almost preternatural breath control, came in the form of Alcina's aria "Ah! mio cor!" Having already heard this aria recently in a concert with Inga Kalna singing the role of Alcina only a few days before, I was interested to see how the two would compare and contrast. Where Kalna was regal and reserved, Bartoli was passionate and emotive. This is not to criticize either, just to highlight how two very different approaches can be equally enjoyable. Bartoli's performance creates a floating feeling, seemingly everlasting, which draws the senses within the periphery of her aura, and holds the concentration with every tiny nuance of voice or gesture. For me, this ability even outweighs her famed coloratura. (I remember the first time I experienced this skill of hers was when she sang "Sposa, non mi conosci" as a part of the Sacrificium concert) Judging by the applause, "Ah! moi cor" was the highlight of the first half. A copy of the score can be seen here.
The other three first-half offerings from Bartoli were showcases for her lightning speed. The first, "Scherza in mar" from Lotario, is a fiery, upbeat aria, with lots of coloratura, octave leaps and drops, and many movements through the registers. It is the statement of refusal by Adelaide, the widowed Queen of Italy, as she stands resolute against any attempt by Berengario and Matilda to marry her to their son. "Scherza in mar" proves that vocal fireworks and good melodic writing can go hand in hand. The aria really suited Bartoli's voice, and plays to her ability to move across the extremes of her range with ease and fluidity. A copy of the score can be seen here.
Singing of her love for Teseo, in the opera of the same name, poor Agilea sings the aria "Ah, che sol per Teseo... M'adora l'idol mio", as Teseo's father announces that he himself will marry her. Bartoli uses the aria to show just how super-speed coloratura should be done, while performing melismatic duets with the oboe. (A copy of the score can be seen here.) In the last aria of the first-half, "Mi deride... Destero dall'empia Dite" from Amadigi di Gaula, Bartoli sings the sorceress Melissa's rage aria. With lyrics such as "I will raise every fury from vilest Hell to wage war on you, cruel traitors," and with a duet for oboe and trumpet, "Destero" is a real firecracker of an aria. With flashing eyes and wild interpolated ornamentation, Bartoli commanded the stage, except for a rather humourous moment when the oboe and trumpet got the better of her! (A copy of the score can be seen here.) Both arias have a high tessatura, staying in soprano territory the majority of the time.
The token music from Handel's rivals came from Nicola Porpora (Overtures from Il Gedeone, and from Perdono, amata Nice) and Francesco Maria Veracini (Ouverture No. 6 in G minor). On the basis of the Veracini, it is easy to see why the Opera of the Nobility fell into bankrupcy. While the Basel Chamber Orchestra tried their best to make this piece of music interesting, I have to admit that it didn't really do much for me. The two Porpora items were much better, however, and admirably performed. In the first piece, the overture to Il Gedeone, the staccato rhythm sounded almost Purcellian (I'm thinking here of the "Cold Song" from King Arthur), while the second had a renassaince feel to it (perhaps it was just me) and was spiced up by rhythmic foot stamping from the Orchestra.
After the interval, the program focused on my favourite, and arguably the greatest, of Handel's operas: Giulio Cesare. Singing with Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli, who sang a selection from the role of Cesare, Bartoli performed three arias attributed to Cleopatra. It was a very well balanced partnership, with Bartoli's light, supple voice perfectly capturing the character of the playful and seductive Cleopatra, and Fagioli's well produced countertenor moving seamlessly into the modal voice to manage the more "alto" parts of Cesare's arias. I first heard 29 year old Fagioli in a recording of Mozart's "Venga pur", which used to be on YouTube, and was very impressed. His voice has matured well, and he is now ready to take on the harder Handelian roles.
Fagioli's first offering, the countertenor calling-card "Va Tacito e nascosto", was very well performed. Many countertenors perform this aria with a mixture of mid-voice hoots, and a croaky or non-existant lower range. Fagioli's voice was well blended, forceful, masculine, and effective throughout the range. Easily hitting high F and above. His "Al lampo dell'armi" was sensational, with effortless coloratura and sustained phrasing, though on the first melisma he shot off so fast he almost overtook the orchestra! His final run upto high F was explosive, and earned him prolonged applause. The final aria, "Aure, deh, per pieta" was luscious and full, beautifully phrased with wonderful legato singing. On the basis of this performance, Fagioli is heading to join the countertenor royalty.
Bartoli's three arias were expertly chosen to show the full emotional range of Handel's Cleopatra. First was the sensuous "V'adoro, pupille", the aria Cleopatra sings to seduce Cesare. Bartoli used her girly charm to the full, producing a characterisation more coquettish than overtly sexual. Her legato and phrasing produced extra tension in the performance, with delicate vocal ornamentation and physical gestures combining to entice the audience. The beautiful and melancholy "Se pieta" was next, and here we saw a much deeper Cleopatra. Full of loss and despair, Bartoli used her supreme breath control and pianissimo to devastating effect. The aria was genuinely moving, leaving a couple of people near me with glistening eyes. (To read my analysis of "Se pieta", click here). Finally, Bartoli gave us the joyous "Da tempeste". If there was ever a calling card for Baroque sopranos (or high mezzos) it is this. The sheer joy with which Bartoli performed saturated the hall, earning her a rousing applause. The pair ended with the duet "Piu amabile", which closed the second half perfectly. A copy of the score can be seen here.
As an encore, Fagioli reprised "Va Tacito", with extra improvisation for the excellent horn player Glen Borling, and coloratura running from low F to high A (over two octaves). The blend in Fagioli's voice has been so well produced, that the same tonal quality ran throughout the full range. Bartoli decided to match Fagioli's covering of Senesino's arias by singing Farinelli's "Son Qual Nave". Written by Farinelli's brother, Riccardo Broschi, the aria is a showcase for Farinelli's vocal skills (which judging by the aria must have been prodigious). The first phrase lasted nearly 30 seconds, and had Bartoli performing no less than five messa di voce's! FIVE!! She had to stop before carrying on as we the audience whooped and cheered. By the time she finished several audience members were on their feet. The final encore was a duet, finishing as the concert started with Rinaldo. The pair sang a beautiful rendition "Scherzano sul tuo volto", their voices intertwining like liquid silver. Bartoli and Fagioli were given a standing ovation by myself and many of the audience - it was well earned.
In contrasting Handel with his rivals, Ms Bartoli succeeded in showing us that Handel had no rivals; like Ms Bartoli herself.
One thing we've learned recently at Show Me Something Interesting is that the Barbican is really good at getting last minute replacements for indisposed Sopranos. First, the wonderful Susan Gritton stepped in for Anna Caterina Antonacci in the recent Handel/Vivaldi/Pergolesi concert, and more recently, Inga Kalna stepped in for an under-the-weather Anja Harteros in the concert performance of Handel's Alcina on Saturday. In both instances, a good solid performance from a technically gifted and an emotionally communicative artist ensured that the show most definitely continued. The performance was dedicated to one great lady who always gave her audiences a thrill (and more often than not, a trill): the late, great Dame Joan Sutherland, herself a famed Alcina. In fact, it was after her performance in the role at La Fenice, Venice in 1960, that she was dubbed "La Stupenda."
Alcina is an opera packed to the brim with great tunes. The libretto is derived from the same source as Handel's Orlando and Ariodante, and Vivaldi's Orlando furioso. The original text was penned by Ludovico Ariosto and had as its backdrop the war between Charlemagne and the Saracen army which was invading Europe. The plot for the opera is taken from the storyline in which the Saracen Ruggiero, betrothed to the Christian warrior woman Bradamante, is captured by the sorceress Alcina. Ruggiero and Bradamante are thought to be the ancestors of Ariosto's patrons, the powerful d'Este family of Ferrara. The libretto was first put to music by Riccardo Broschi, brother of Carlo Maria Broschi, otherwise known as Farinelli.
The original cast for Handel's opera had some star names as well as some relative unknowns. The title role was taken by Soprano Anna Maria Strada del Po, who had received personal coaching from Handel. She was not the most attractive of people, and was often called "the Pig". Handel's confidant, Mary Pendarves (nee Granville), said of del Po: "La Strada is the first woman; her voice is without exception fine, her manner perfection, but her person very bad, and she makes frightful mouths."
The part of Ruggiero was taken by the famed castrato Carestini, who had worked for composers such as Johann Adolf Hasse, Leonardo Vinci, Gluck and Porpora. He came to London in 1733 to perform with Handel's opera troupe. Known for having a high opinion of his own abilities, he is reported to have questioned the suitability of the aria Verdi prati, thinking it beneath him. Handel heard about this, and: "went, in a great rage, to [Carestini's] house, and in a way which few composers, except Handel, ever ventured to accost a first-singer, crie[d] out: "You toc! don't I know better as your seluf, vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver.""
Suffice it to say, Carestini sang the aria, which was encored throughout the original run of the opera.
Anyway, let's get back to the present. The role of Alcina is demanding not just vocally, but psychologically, as the opera charts the mental and emotional degeneration of an all-powerful sorceress, who subdues a whole island, and acquires various lovers, by preternatural means. Vocally, Inga Kalna was more than qualified for the job, which required several different vocal styles. She had previous experience in the role, and had performed it with Minowski before. The first of her arias, the high-lying "Di', cor mio", is the epitome of velvety mellifluousness, while her second aria, "Si, son quella", with its continuo accompaniment and solo cello, is more subtle, almost fragile. In "Ah! mio cor", another high tessitura aria, Kalna is at her best in the heart-rending A-section, where Alcina learns of Ruggiero's deception. The C minor key hints at a darkness beneath the grief as C minor is often associated with dark deeds. The moving bass and staccato chords in the strings feel almost like a relentless beating inflicted by her own broken heart, while Kalna's distraught cry of "O dio" towards the end of the A-section, moving between high G and Ab, could not be more moving. In the B-section, with violins reminiscent of "Un pensiero nemico di pace", Alcina threatens her lover with vengeance if he does not remain with her.
After attempting and failing to send the spirits of vengeance against her former lover and his entourage, and realising her powers have left her, she sings the moving "Ombra Pallide". The aria is filled with dissonance and suspensions, and swift changes between major and minor during the coloratura passages. These all denote the confusion and anxiety Alcina feels now the magic she relied upon has left her. Kalna became Alcina in this aria, giving a demoralised and unsettled, yet still regal interpretation of the troubled Queen. A couple of the high notes were slightly forced, but the melancholic beauty of Kalna's voice carried through the difficulties. Her penultimate aria, "Ma quando tornerai", reminds one of King Lear: powerless yet still attempting to retain the trappings of power. The A-section is all bluster, threatening Ruggiero with calamity when she captures him, while the B-section is all forgiveness and willingness to take him back. What Alcina does not realise, in a conscious manner, is that both her threats and her appeal rely on her sorcery: without it she is powerless. This is reflected in the scoring: wide leaps in the A-section denoting hysteria, bluster, an attempt to convince both Ruggiero and herself that she is still and invincible sorceress; and an unstable key in the B-sectionmirroring her own internal instability, and the breaking down of her external world. Her final aria, "Mi restanto le lagrime" is in F# minor, a key which Handel used to denote extreme emotion and tragedy, as in Cleopatra's aria "Se pieta de me non senti". Kalna excelled in this aria, which she imbued with such pathos and despair, the whole audience let out an audible sigh at it close. A wonderfully restrained, regal interpretation from Kalna that, while not explosive, was thoughtful, considered, and refreshing.
The fireworks, however, were oh-so-present in the form of Vesselina Kasarova, the Bulgarian mezzo cast as Ruggiero. A veteran in the role, few singers spark such furious debate in Baroque, or even in general, operatic circles. If you take the three main arias for instance, you will see why. In "Verdi Prati" and "Mi lusinga", for instance, the beauty and purity of tone that one would find with Philippe Jaroussky, for example, is not there. The sound is harder, the register changes more marked, and there is more portamento than one would usually associate with the Baroque period. But, quite frankly, I don't care! The emotion in the voice, the acting, the pathos, the power of the delivery held me, and practically everybody in the hall, transfixed. "Mi lusinga" was especially heartbreaking, as the troubled mind of a man freed from one illusion, but now unable to tell what is true and what is not, was portrayed so accurately that one really felt the confusion and frustration of the re-awakened warrior.
And that brings me on to another point: Kasarova managed to portray a man, a warrior, from a man's perspective. Standing, legs apart, leading slightly backwards, gesturing aggressively towards the audience in her black jump-suit, Kasarova was the epitome of masculinity, without falling into caricature. For someone so able to play feminine roles (see her Rosina on YouTube), and with such a feminine speaking voice, it is remarkable how easily she fits into the trouser roles in Handel. The effect was only slightly marred by her kitten-heels, which she nonetheless managed to swagger in! The highpoint of her performance was the astounding "Sta nell' Ircana". Full of register crashes galore, chest voice punches, flashing eyes, and pointing fingers; this castrato tour de force was superbly managed by the Bulgarian. Maybe some purists can complain about the technique, such as the cleanness of the arpeggios or the slight hooting in the middle of the voice, but I just think back to Dame Clara Butt, Elena Suliotis, and Maria Callas, and the dramatic dives into the chest register which thrilled their audiences (in fact, Clara Butt did it more and more often after finding out her audiences expected it of her). Anyway, she got the biggest hand of the night, and rightly so. Even Romina Basso was clapping away like mad after "Sta nell' Ircana", hands above her head, and stamping her feet on the floor - she wasn't the only one!
Of the rest of the cast, Romina Basso, singing from the score, and the young treble Shintaro Nakajima, impressed the most. I have waited a long time to hear Basso live, as her recording of "Gaude Felix" from Vivaldi's "Juditha Triumphens" on YouTube showed a beautifully dark and rich mezzo-soprano, almost contralto-like tone, full-bodied and well rounded. She did not disappoint. Hearing her live was even better than hearing recordings for her. The voice is so plumy, so warm, and full of expression, that she could be singing about cleaning the toilet for all it would matter. Her first aria, "E gelosia", had Basso firing out her trademark coloratura, as did the second, "Vorrei vendicarmi", where she hit four low A's in the fast section, and serenaded us with gorgeous legato singing in the larghetto. "Vorrei vendicarmi" also benefited from the augmented bass section of the orchestra, with three double basses and three bassoons, as there are parts of the aria where the continuo rumbles away before a particularly difficult piece of coloratura. Her third aria, "All'alma fedel", was all sumptuous melodies and rich tones, which had me grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Playing the role of Oberto, Shintaro Nakajima almost upstaged the rest of the cast! Surety of tone, a confident stage presence, and the ability to act and interact with his colleagues, marked him out as one to watch once his voice matures. His last aria, "Barbara! Io ben lo so", is a coloratura tour de force which has long passages, difficult intervals, and two high A's. Nakajima pulled it off brilliantly, threatening the witch Aclina as he went, going well above the stave at the end, and displaying a formidable chest register on the initial "Barbara" of the A section. He was so good that he had to come back on stage after his last aria due to all the clapping and shouting from us in the audience.
All in all, it was an excellent performance, one I would thoroughly recommend to anyone, whether a Baroque aficionado or a first-time listener to Handel - there's something for everyone here. I think most of all the sense of enjoyment from the performers, both the cast and the orchestra, made it such an enjoyable evening. I will not forget Kasarova in her kitten-heels and jump-suit, nor will I forget Basso feverishly applauding her, along with this rest of us.
Having seen Sara Mingardo perform at the Wigmore Hall some time ago, I was relishing the chance to see her again. My chance came in the form of a wonderful concert at the barbican, promising not one, but two of my favourite pieces: "Cum dederit dilectus suis somnum" from Vivaldi's "Nisi Dominus", and "Fac ut Portem, Christi mortem" from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. The billing stated that Mingardo would be joined by the wonderful Anna Caterina Antonacci: unfortunately though, Antonacci was indisposed. So instead Susan Gritton, (who I had seen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall only a few days before in Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail") gallantly stepped in to save the day.
Due to Antonacci's last minute unavailability, the first piece on the program was changed from Porpora's Salve Regina to Handel's Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op 6, No 7: not a problem, in my opinion! The performance was both intuitive and stylish, seamlessly moving from one tempo to another. The highlight must surely be the inspired performance by lead violinist Catherine Martin in the solo section.
Next to come was Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus. A beautiful yet melancholic piece, even the faster movements are tinged with sadness. The staccato rhythm of the opening movement, "Nisi Dominus", contrasts with and compliments the impossibly smooth, velvet quality of Mingardo's voice. The combination is repeated again in the penultimate section "Sicut Erat".
The highlight of the piece for many was the fourth movement: "Cum Dederit". The slow, lilting 12/8 time signature, and its crotchet/quaver pedal relentlessly drive the piece onwards. On top of this, interspersed by the occasional flourish by the higher strings, Mingardo's warm, rich tone rides like a slow yet unstoppable wave through the orchestra straight to the soul. The long, well controlled phrases hold one in their grip, while her excellent "mezza di voce" through the longest notes and phrases induced an atmosphere of melancholic pensiveness throughout audience. The lively "Sicut Sagittae" which followed provided perfect counterbalance to the sombre "Cum Dederit".
The light yet powerful "Gloria Patri" again enchanted those present, with the heavenly interplay between the solo violin and the voice on the phrase "et spiritui sancti". Mingardo showed a very intimate understanding of the text, vocally enunciating each and every nuance. The final movement, the "Amen" was well paced, and an exciting close to a fantastic piece. The video below is of Mingardo performing the "Cum Dederit". Please scroll down further for the last part of the concert.
At only 26 years of age, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died from tuberculosis in Pozzuoli, near Naples in Italy. Like Mozart after him, Pergolesi was a very talented composer who left the world far too young. The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that he was: "of frail constitution" and that "he shortened his career by irregular conduct" - whatever that may mean. He wrote many operatic works, mainly opera buffo (comedy), though many works claimed to be by Pergolesi have subsequently turned out to be by other composers. The work for which he is most remembered however is the "Stabat Mater", written shortly before he died. Composed for male soprano, male alto, and orchestra, it was commissioned by the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo.
In this performance, both artists were female. As stated above, Anna Caterina Antonacci was originally to have taken the soprano role. A last minute cancellation left us with the more than able talents of Susan Gritton. Given that there could not have been much time for Gritton and Mingardo to build a rapport with respect to the piece, the interplay between the two was surprisingly well managed. Many of the movements were duets, requiring both emotional and technical collaboration.
The first movement, "Stabat Mater Dolorosa", was full of suspensions and dissonances from the onset: initially in close harmony, then later with Mingardo in the lower octave. The series of alternating dissonance/resolution fills the listener with expectation and satisfaction. Both singers performed the movement with a high level of vocal "purity", and with complementary volume.
It was towards the end of the piece, however, that the real jewel of the "Stabat Mater" was revealed. In the sublime "Fac ut Portem", Mingardo excelled herself. The long legato lines, with stark orchestral support, were performed with other-worldly purity, though always humble and true to the score. Yet it was the ornament at the end of the movement which excited most: Mingardo moved slowly down over a held chord in the orchestra to a low Db! And what resonance there was in the lower chest register. Mingardo sounded fuller in the extreme lower range than some Tenors! There was a palpable air of excitement, which was held until then end of the movement. Gritton and Mingardo performed the final duets beautifully, but as I left the auditorium, the hot topic on everyone's lips was that sensational low Db. A recorded version, complete with the finishing ornament, can be heard below.