Contralto, Sonia Prina returned to the Wigmore Hall after her phenomenal debut to perform arias composed by G. F. Handel for the star castrato Senesino. Handel wrote many heroic roles for Senesino, a man noted for his fiery temperament, each playing to the castrato’s wonderfully rich lower register and to his ability to sing “allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner”. Sonia Prina’s amazing technique, and her willingness to explore the lower register of the contralto voice, made her performance a unanimous success: she is truly the Heir to Senesino!
Prina chose three intense yet emotionally diverse slow arias in the program. In the first, “Ombra cara” from Radamisto, Prina wove a tale of loss and revenge, her dark voice full of despair and wretched vengeance. In “Pompe vane… Dove sei” from Rodelinda, Prina’s astounding breath control and rich tone imbued the aria with a deep sense of longing.
The hypnotic orchestration of “Cara sposa” from Rinaldo, was chillingly delivered by Luca Pianca's Ensemble Claudiana, solidly underpinning Prina’s emotionally devastating delivery. The contrast between the tempi of the A and B sections worked very well, demonstrating the conflicting emotions of the aria.
Of the five bravura arias which made up the majority of the program, and the whole of the encores, I must make special mention of the first, “Furibondo spira il vento” from Partenope. Prina’s technique and delivery of the rapid coloratura passages electrified the audience. It was the best performance of this aria I have heard.
“Empio, dirò, tu sei” from Giulio Cesare, which was performed both in the first half of the recital, and as the final encore, was truly furious. Prina strutted about the stage, dominating the aria from beginning to end. Her G3 at the end of the B section, and the F3 at the end of the da capo, were utterly brilliant.
Bertarido’s “Vivi Tiranno” from Rodelinda saw Prina in triumphant form, revelling in Handel’s superb composition, while “Venti Turbini” from Rinaldo saw her deliver the longs lines of semiquavers with frightening assurance. “Se fiera belva ha cinto” from Rodelinda was a much jollier affair, with Prina and Ensemble Claudiana having a great deal of fun in its performance.
The highlight of the concert was the tremendous performance of the two pieces from Orlando: “Cielo! se tu il consenti” and “Ah Stigie larve”. In the first aria, Prina took the triplet phrases at blistering speed, while her characterisation in the second, the Mad scene from Orlando, was so authentic and riveting that it elicited a roar of approval from the audience.
The orchestral offerings from Ensemble Claudiana came mainly from Theodora: the Overture, the Larghetto and the Courante. In a change from the program, we were treated to Handel’s Passacaglia Op. 5, Mvt. 4. Each was performed with skill and intelligence, the small ensemble able to tease new meaning out of the familiar pieces. From start to finish the Ensemble, with Luca Pianca at the helm, performed magnificently, their intelligent craftsmanship and nuanced performance both supporting and complementing Prina's Olympian performance.
© James Edward Hughes 2014
From the Nikolaisaal in the heart of Potsdam, Germany, we were treated to a fantastic concert with two giants of the Baroque music world: coloratura soprano Simone Kermes and contralto Sonia Prina.
The music focused on Handel and some of his rival composers: Porpora, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, and a fiery aria from Gluck. With a combined range of over three octaves (E6 from Kermes, and D3 from Prina) the evening was a virtuosic extravaganza: a truly memorable occasion.
We were presented with a delightful pair of slow, pensive arias. Sonia Prina’s hypnotic delivery of Vivaldi’s magnificent “Là, sull'eterna sponda” was the first aria of the evening. The superb phrasing and tender delivery captivated the Potsdam audience, while her cavernous G3 in the da capo rang out gloriously throughout the hall. Simone Kermes tantalised us with the beautiful “Alto Giove” by Porpora. She began with a tender messa di voce on the first vowel, which she swelled and diminished with admirable control, and her high pianissimo in the da capo was haunting.
Each of the soloists had three bravura arias. Sonia Prina’s first offering was “Quel vasto quel fiero” from Porpora’s Polifemo, where her speed and agility were highly impressive. Prina utterly dominated the fierce “Se fedele mi brama” from Gluck’s Ezio. She revelled in the low tessitura of the piece, the passages below the stave full of strength and power. Finally, Prina blew the audience away with her electric coloratura and commanding stage presence in Handel’s “Venti turbini”. Simone Kermes launched into Porpora’s “Vedrà turbato il mare” with complete abandon, leaping into the stratosphere with amazing security. Kermes powered through the ferocious “Empi se mai disciolgo” seemingly without stopping for breath, while she playfully vaulted above the stave in “Son qual nave in ria procella”.
The evening was dominated by a series of duets between the soprano and contralto. We were presented with two offerings from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. In “Stabat Mater dolorosa” Kermes and Prina sauntered through the sinuous suspensions with spine-tingling precision, their two distinct voices intertwining magically. “Fac, ut ardet cor meum” is much faster, much more vigorous. The combination of two of the Baroque music world’s best coloratura specialists made for an exciting rendition. Perhaps my favourite duet of the evening was Handel’s “Io t’abbraccio” from Rodelina. Prina and Kermes were completely in character, full of heartache and suffering: a truly stunning rendition of this devastating duet.
But is wasn’t all heartache and sorrow. By the time we came to the encores, we were into the territory of the Baroque love duet. The first encore was the ebullient “Scherzano sul tuo volto” from Handel’sRinaldo. Kermes and Prina sang like a pair of young lovers, and ended the piece with a kiss! The second duet, “Caro! Bella!” from Giulio Cesare, saw Prina dive down to a marvellous D3 at the beginning of the da capo, the lowest note I have heard from her so far. Throughout the concert, the accompaniment by La Magnifica Comunità, under the direction of Enrico Casazza, was, as always, excellent.
The hall of the Warsaw National Opera House was packed out with people from all over Europe coming to hear the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś perform a series of arias which showcased the wide-ranging scope of her repertoire. Accompanying her was conductor Michael Güttler, and the Teatru Wielkiego choir and orchestra.
To start the evening, we were treated to a lively performance of the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, from Handel’s Solomon. The orchestra was in good form, and particular praise must go to the oboe soloists who did a spectacular job. Madame Podleś arrived onstage to a thunderous applause, dressed in a glamorous black trouser suit with sequins. Her first aria was “Dover, giustizia, amor” from Ariodante, which she took slightly slower than usual, but nevertheless dominated it in true Podleś style. The end of the aria saw her rise to a ringing A5, only to thunder down to a chesty D4 to finish.
We were treated to three pieces of Rossini during the program, two overtures and an aria/scena. The first overture was from William Tell, in which the cello soloists and the section in general were magnificent, playing with intensity and feeling. The ebullient overture from Il Signor Bruschino was the second orchestral offering from Rossini. Güttler’s conducting was full of zany energy, and the second violins very much enjoyed their bow-tapping on the stands. (The score of the bow tapping can be seen in the picture below).
Ewa Podleś gave a highly dramatic and aggressive performance of “Ciro infelice” from Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia. Pitch-perfect notes at the top of the voice were thrown out like javelins at the audience, while the true contralto chest register was unleashed on more than one occasion, with the slow descent to E3 a stunning example of the cavernous force of the lower end of the female voice. Podleś ended the aria with a truly primal D4, high in the chest register, which lasted right until the end of the orchestral accompaniment. It was a truly devastating piece of singing, which earned a huge round of applause from the audience.
Podleś again impressed with “Il sergreto per esser felici” from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Her perfect legato singing was matched with a very rich sound in the middle register. Her F5’s and G5’s were spot-on, and Podleś seemed to enjoy moving through the upper register in this aria. During the repetition of the phrase “si dan del futuro pensier” she once again plumbed the contralto profundo depths, hitting an E3 of such force and resonance that a couple of tenors in the choir were rather taken aback!
Returning to the stage, Podleś had changed into a wonderful orange dress with black lace embroidery to sing “Field of Death” from Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky. The mesmerising timbre of the Podleś middle register was perfect for this piece, and the great contralto was forced to come back onstage at the end, such was the level of applause she received. Another emotionally charged aria was “Voce di donna o d’angelo” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Here Podleś was full of high drama, fiercely emotional and physically compelling. Again the audience erupted with applause.
The concert program concluded with a selection of music from two Verdi operas. The first piece was the overture to La forza del destino, the main motif of which was beautifully played by the wind section. The spectacular Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore gave the bass and contralto sections of the choir a chance to shine, as the main part of the chorus is written in unison high in the voice. The wall of sound from the right of the choir was startling to behold.
Finally, Madame Podleś returned to the stage as Azucena singing the menacing “Stride la Vampa” also from Il Trovatore. The Polish contralto’s acting ability came to the fore here, as she was totally in character from the moment she took position next to Güttler. Her high notes were extraordinarily resonant, a testament to her excellent technique.
We were treated to two encores. The first was a scene from Massenet’s Cendrillon, where Podleś takes on the character role of Madame de la Haltière, a role she performed at the Royal Opera House. Her comic timing was perfect, and her gestures and expressions intelligently executed. The final encore was “Cruda Sorte” from Rossini’s L'italiana in Algeri. Podleś alternated magnificently between the light head register for the coloratura passages, and the dark chest register used for the chromatic descent on the phrase “tutti la bramano”. She ended the concert in true Podleś style with a formidable F5 which rang out spectacularly.
It was an amazing concert, and I’m very glad I went to Warsaw to see her.
Contralto Sonia Prina joined forces with the incomparable Il Pomo d’Oro for a memorable evening, combining the beauty and depth of Vivaldi with some breathtaking performances. It was a triumph for Prina, earning a rapturous applause from a packed Wigmore Hall.
The first of the three Vivaldi cantatas we were treated to was “Perfidissimo cor!” which was accompanied only by Harpsichord, Lute and Cello. This intimate grouping allowed Prina to communicate, with a potent intensity, the emotional charge of the text, weaving an enchantment which remained throughout the evening. Prina’s famous coloratura came early in the recital, as she navigated effortlessly through the demisemiquaver runs occurring repeatedly on the word “sdegno” in the first of the two arias, which she ended with a formidably solid G3. The second aria contained many uses of elements of the harmonic minor scale, which requires pin-point accuracy of pitch to sound effective: a requirement that Prina was more than happy to deliver.
The first aria of the second Vivaldi Cantata, “Cessate, omai cessate”, opened with an interesting mix of pizzicato and bowed strings: the score stipulating that only the cello and one violin be bowed. At moments of emphasis, all the strings are designated arco, which gave an aggressive, whip-like effect to the phrase “Già barbare e spietate”. Prina’s beautiful ornament at the end of the B section lead straight into the da capo, where she added a series of tasteful mordents, turns and trills, finishing with an ornament that deliciously portrayed Prina’s dark and velvety lower register. The second aria set the Wigmore Hall on fire, as Prina performed at impossibly high speed, throwing out F5’s like fireworks, while adding even faster ornamentation in the da capo. The roar that came from the audience proclaimed the first half a resounding success.
In the second half, Prina presented us with two arias from Vivaldi’s operas. The first, “Cosi potessi anch’io” from Orlando furioso, saw Prina don the mantle of the Sorceress Alcina, alternating between longing for her lover, and lamenting her lot at the hands of the god of love. Prina carried a beautiful legato line, with a warm and passionate tone throughout. The second aria, “Se in ogni guardo” fromOrlando finto pazzo, saw Prina rip through the music like lightning. Her precision in the difficult coloratura passages was astounding. The final piece in the second half was the cantata “Amor, hai vinto”. It is known as the Queen of Vivaldi’s cantatas, and is full of explosive and passionate music. The first aria starts with a powerful continuo line, and sinuous, interweaving upper stings, in pairs of resolving dissonances. Prina dealt expertly with the lines of triplet semiquavers, while declaiming emphatically the agitated and fiery text. The coloratura in the second aria was a pure delight to listen to in the hands of so athletic an artist. Prina choice of repertoire was well balanced, and an excellent showcase for her exhilarating contralto voice.
The first of the Instrumental pieces, Giuseppe Brescianello’s Sinfonia in F, Op. 1, No. 5, was a joyous way to introduce Il Pomo d’Oro to the audience. The opening movement alternated between lively movement, and a series of slower, tender motifs played only by the higher strings. The other two pieces were Violin concertos by Vivaldi. The middle section of the first concerto, the C major RV 181, had a tender and mournful line for the violin which Riccardo Minasi, director of Il Pomo d’Oro, performed with intuitive and sensitive musicianship. The final concerto, the E minor RV 277 “Il Favorito”, had an astounding part for Riccardo Minasi, who truly took on the mantel of Vivaldi with virtuosity and skill. I must also mention the extraordinary Ludovico Minasi on cello, and Giulio D’Alessio on Viola, who managed to tease the most beautiful “alto” sounds right from the soul of the instrument.
For the encore, Prina gave us two marvellous arias. The first was “Vedrò con mio diletto” from IlGiustino. Prina introduced the aria by telling us that it was one of her favourites, which she used to sing when she was pregnant. In her hands, the aria reprised the enchantment of the first cantata. Her dynamic decisions were perfectly considered, and her choice of ornamentation enhanced the already beautiful melodic line. It was wonderful to hear Prina use the lower registers in the da capo, rather than moving higher in the voice as is usually the case when this aria is performed by other singers. The second encore was "Nel profondo" from Orlando Furioso. She introduced the aria as being both funny and fast: and indeed it was. She interacted magnificently with both the orchestra and the audience: the wonderful “yes” gasped by Riccardo Minasi as Prina reached the low G3 on the word “mondo” received a hearty laugh from the audience. In the da capo, Prina launched herself up to a spectacular G5, and followed it immediately by plummeting down two octaves to a G3.
It was a fantastic concert, one of the best I have been to. I left the concert exhilarated by the music, and determined to see this superb contralto again very soon. I was also very pleased to have had the chance to hear Il Pomo d’Oro, as they are truly one of the best period orchestras on the circuit today.
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées played host to a wonderful concert performance of Handel’s Rodelinda, with a stellar cast which included soprano Karina Gauvin, and the contraltos Sonia Prina and Delphine Galou. Alan Curtis was at the helm, directing the orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco.
From the moment Karina Gauvin sang her first note, she stamped her authority on the character of Rodelinda. Her potent attack in the aria “L’empio rigor” was ferocious indeed, yet she was capable of great tenderness also, as her light touch and exquisite phrasing in “Ombra piante” confirmed. Her technical skill and confident coloratura was evident in the demanding “Morrai, sì”, while Gauvin raged with the force of a Medea in the recitative where Rodelinda exhorts Grimoaldo to kill her son. In the following aria, “Spietati, lo vi giurai” Gauvin was on fire. The purity and solidity of tone in the high tessitura of “Ritorna, o caro” was beautiful to behold, while her “Se’l mio duol”, with its nods to “Se pietà” from Giulio Cesare, was utterly heartrending. Gauvin’s “Mio cara bene”, was truly joyous as she soared above the stave. Gauvin was indeed a memorable and powerful Rodelinda.
In a role which is so full of powerful arias, it was surprising to note that Sonia Prina’s Bertarido produced some of the tenderest performances I have ever heard from her. In the poignant “Dove sei”, Prina’s middle register was so light and pure it was almost as if we were listening to a lyric mezzo, instead of a contralto famed for revelling in her chest register, while “Con rauco mormorio” was devastatingly affecting. Prina returned to her fiery form with “Confusa sì miri” thundering through her lines with tremendous security in the lower register, while she effortlessly navigated the awkward lines of “Scacciata dal suo nido” which sit right across the contralto lower passagio. Prina’s vocal fireworks in “Se fiera belva ha cinto” threatened to upstage her astounding “Vivi Tiranno”, both of which saw her dive ferociously into the true contralto depths.
The duet “Io t’abbraccio” was truly magical, as Prina and Gauvin’s voices wove together to form a richly textured, intimate musical pattern: where Gauvin glided to the top of the stave, Prina countered by flowing to the bottom, achieving a synthesis of tone in the overlapping areas.
The velvety tones of mezzo Romina Basso and contralto Delphine Galou were heard in the roles of Eduige and Unulfo respectively. Basso’s rich middle register added a sultry sensuality to the traitorous Eduige. She excelled in the feisty “Lo farò dirò spietato”, her warm tone present throughout the range. “De’ miei scherni” saw Basso unleash her trademark speed, and her wonderful ornamentation. She also excels in dynamic variations, which she uses to great effect on long, unaccompanied notes in her cadenze. Her last aria was the vivacious “Quanto più fiera”, in which she seemed to enjoy herself a lot. Galou’s speed and lightness of touch, coupled with her dark timbre, make her voice perfect for the so-called “trouser” roles. She sped through her first aria, “Sono i culpi”, at breakneck speed, navigating confidently the low-lying coloratura. In “''Fra tempeste funeste” Galou sang one of the most beautiful lines in the opera, the phrase “foreira la calma già spunta una stella”, which was enriched by her exquisite mezza di voce on each of the tied notes.
Topi Lehtipuu’s Grimoaldo was a little off kilter after a mishap in the first aria, but he recovered to produce a lovely “Prigioniera hò l’alma”. While some of the arias seemed a little low for his beautiful, high and light lyric Tenor (which is superb for Vivaldi, in which he has proven success), his “Trà sospetti” was fabulous, with Lehtipuu dominating the aria. Matthew Brook gloried in his role as the scheming villain Garibaldo. “Di Cupido” was both menacing and entertaining, with Brook taking the high tessitura and difficult series of arpeggios in his stride. Particularly good was the extended phrase on the word “alletta”. For me, though, one of the highlights of the night was Brook’s maniacal “Tirannia”, sung with true evil triumph, and one of the best I have heard. Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco did a great job, and thanks for the encore of the final ensemble, with Matthew Brook reduced to an “ornamental” role as his character was already dead by this point. It was a fantastic evening, and a lovely end to my Parisian holiday.
The Wigmore Hall patrons turned out in full force to hear the exquisite voice of Venetian contralto Sara Mingardo. Accompanied by the Accademia degli Astrusi, conducted from the ‘cello by Federico Ferri, Mingardo spun a tail that lead us on a journey through 18th century Italian language repertoire, via some well known (Handel, Pergolesi & Vivaldi) and some lesser known (Galuppi, Martini) composers.
Opening with a series of resolved dissonances, Pergolesi’s Salve Regina starts with a haunting movement that works only when both the ensemble and the artist are moving as one, dynamically and emotionally. Mingardo and the players of the Accademia degli Astrusi were perfectly attuned to each other and to the nuances of the piece, with Mingardo’s moves into the chest register particularly compelling. Her messa di vocein the second movement, “Ad te clamamus”, were a masterclass in the art, while the Accademia degli Astrusi made beautiful work of the syncopated orchestration of “Et Jesum, benedictum”.
Concerto a Quattro No.1 in G minor was the first offering from Baldassare Galuppi. Ferri and his team produced a very stately and intimate Grave e adagio, with fiery and vigorous entrances from the continuo in the Spiritoso. The Allegro was a lilting dance in minuet time, and credit must be given to Lorenzo Colitto on first violin for his handling of the more difficult passages. The cantata La Scusa was the second offering from Galuppi, organised into two recitative-aria couplings. Mingardo’s tender treatment of the first aria captivated from the onset, with beautiful phrasing and employing rich changes in dynamic and colour throughout the range.
We returned from the interval to the Concerto a 4 pieno in D by Padre Giovanni Battista Martini. Federico Ferri has been involved in a publishing project relating to Martini’s music, and his direction here is indicative of his understanding both of the score, and of the composer. The Accademia degli Astrusi treated the chromaticism of the central Adagio movement with due care, and we were rewarded with a truly great performance. Handel’s powerful aria “La crudele lontananza” followed, with Mingardo’s voice ringing powerfully in the upper part of the range. Her characterisation here was pure heroic-Handel: strong and passionate.
Rather than retiring from the stage, Mingardo sat at the back as the Accademia degli Astrusi performed Vivaldi’s Concerto madrigalesco in D minor. The opening conjured up and image of the Sun rising across the Venetian Lagoon. At the conclusion of the concerto, Mingardo rose and proceeded to sing the magnificent Nisi Dominus. In the sombre, dark and mysterious fourth movement, “Cum dederit”, Mingardo wove an enchantment that captivated the audience, particularly during the crescendo of the rising chromatic line “fructus ventris” and the sudden pianissimo on the sustained note at the end of the phrase.
The encore was “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse. This seems to be a favourite encore piece for Mingardo, and she performed it with style and elegance, displaying a beautiful legato and an intuitive understanding of the aria’s meaning. The concert was a delight, pure joy to listen to, and one which I would happily attend again. Each piece complimented the others perfectly, and it was nice to hear a piece of Handel I was not familiar with. Both Sara Mingardo and the Accademia degli Astrusi were on top form, and I look forward to their return to the Wigmore Hall.
In this Olympic year, it is perhaps appropriate that we should be presented with a few performances of possibly one of the most popular librettos of all time: Pietro Metastastio’s L’Olimpiade. More than 60 baroque and classical composers used the libretto as the text for their own operatic and instrumental creations, including Antonio Vivaldi. Last night, instead of the more famous Vivaldi opera, we were presented with a "pasticcio" of the works of 16 composers: Leo, Hasse, Galuppi, Sarti, Mysliveček, Paisiello, Pérez, Vivaldi, Gassmann, Caldara, Traetta, Jommelli, Cherubini, Pergolesi, Piccinni, Jommelli and Cimarosa.
The pasticcio is the brainchild of Joseph Fifer, manager of the Venice Baroque Orchestra (VBO) – the players at last night’s performance. In 2001, the VBO performed the modern day premiere of Cimarosa’s L’Olimpiade, followed in 2006 by the premiere of Galuppi’s version. It was “during research for the Galuppi staging,” Fifer says, that he became “aware that dozens of composers had set the same story.” This led to discussions between Fifer and director of the VBO, Andrea Marcon, “about creating a pasticcio performance and recording project.” After searching the archives of Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice, Paris, Lisbon, Berlin, New York, and Washington DC, and online music resources, the final tapestry of arias by 16 composers was woven together.
The result was a CD, released on the Naïve recording label (also responsible for the groundbreaking Vivaldi Edition project), and a series of concerts in Europe, starting in London. A preview of some of the arias on the recording can be seen in the video below.
The role of Megacle was taken by mezzo-soprano Romina Basso. We were treated to Basso’s excellent coloratura work in the first aria, Hasse’s “Superbo di me stesso.” Particularly nice was her dark tone on the low, descending phrase “come mi sta nel cor,” and her truly Olympian ornamentation in the da capo. The orchestra was a little loud, however, and slightly obscured her chest register in this aria. Not so in the fiery second act aria “L’amico dov’è?” by Cherubini, which Basso stormed through with passion, excellent diction and consummate phrasing. Her inspired modulation of the dynamics wound up the tension, earning her an extended applause. Her final aria, “Lo seguitai felice,” was a Basso tour-de-force, with exciting coloratura, fluid movement throughout the range, and breathtaking beauty of tone.
Two of the three arias for contralto Delphine Galou – taking the role of Licida – were composed by Baldassare Galuppi. His version of the opera premiered in Milan, and was regarded as his most successful opera seria. The first aria, “Quel destrier, che all’albergo è vicino,” showed off Galou’s rich, velvety timbre sound, while in her last aria, “Gemo in un punto, e fremo,” her forceful delivery and intuitive delivery of the text was striking: and what a strong low Ab at the end of the B section! The most astounding performance, however, was her beautifully tender, stripped-down version of Vivaldi’s “Mentre dormi” – a haunting and definitive rendition. I look forward to hearing her interpretation of the role of Bradamante in Handel’s Alcina at Versailles next month.
I was looking forward to hearing the aria by Josef Mysliveček “Del destin non vi lagnate,” performed be tenor Jeremy Ovenden. What I was not prepared for, however, was the ringing F#4 (G in Baroque pitch) at the start of the piece. In fact, I would say that Ovenden was the surprise of the evening. His pianissimo notes in the head register on the phrase “ma regnate”were delightful, and his phrasing and tone throughout the aria marked him as a rising star. Well done to him also for continuing un-phased as part of the ceiling fell down! He handled the difficult “So ch’è fanciullo Amore” by Jommelli expertly, and excelled in the final aria of the opera, “Non so donde viene” by Cimarosa, with its nearly two octave ascending leap.
Luanda Siqueira took on the role of Argene, originally performed by Karina Gauvin on the Naïve recording. She was composed throughout, and performed well, particularly in Pergolesi’s fiendish “No, la speranza,” displaying a solid and flexible range over two octaves. "Oh care selve, oh cara" by Sarti had some beautifully lyric moments, with Siqueria providing some very tasteful ornamentation. Her coloratura during Traetta's "Che non mi disse un dì!" was precice, though it was freer and more playful in her final aria, Perez's "Fiamma ignota nell’alma mi scende."
The love interest of both Licida and Megacle, the Princess Aristea, was sung by Ruth Rosique, who threw herself into her character with determination, reaping exciting results, particularly in the fierce offering from Leonardo Leo, “Tu me da me divide”. Her duet with Romina Basso, “Nei giorni tuoi felici,” was convincing, with Rosique and Basso interacting well. Caldara's "Grandi, e ver, son le tue pene" is vocally taxing, but Rosique managed to make it her own. Paisello's "Tu di saper procura" and Piccinni's "Caro, son tua cosi" allowed Rosique to showcase the softer side of her voice to great effect.
The role of Aminta was taken by counter-tenor Nicholas Spanos, who also doubled up as a bass in the choruses: the final two of which, both by Hasse, were superb. Bassoonist Stefano Meloni deserves special mention for his virtuosic playing during Spanos' first aria, “Siam navi all’onde algenti,” which was a furious tempest of an aria. Markellos Chryssicos at the Harpsichord was also worthy of note. Chryssicos had previously taken the role of conductor on the CD recording.
It was an enjoyable evening, particularly for those wishing to look deeper into the world of those Baroque composers. Indeed, Joseph Fifer stated objectives were: “to help introduce important work by several lesser-known composers, and to encourage others to continue exploring the enormous body of eighteenth-century Italian opera.”
This production shows that these objectives have been met, admirably.
Yesterday evening, I attended a concert which I found very interesting, and which I would like share with you. The piece I’m writing is an overview which I hope gives you a flavour of what I experienced. It is not in the same style as my usual posts, which tend to be more analytical, as I am not familiar with Prokofiev’s music, having immersed myself in the Baroque and Classical periods for so many years.
As part of artistic director and conductor Vladimir Jurowski's Prokofiev: Man of the people? season, the Royal Festival Hall hosted two rarely heard pieces of music by the Russian composer. The first piece, Egyptian Nights, was originally a “theatrical experiment...that brought together scenes from Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and the 1828 poem Cleopatra by Alexander Pushkin.” The reason for the combination of the Shaw and Shakespeare plays was explained by Prokofiev himself: “Shaw depicted Cleopatra in the bloom of her youth; and Shakespeare, at the moment of her decline.”
The second piece was the world première of Levon Atovmyan’s oratorio arrangement of the music by Prokofiev to accompany Sergei Eizenshtein’s film Ivan the Terrible. Lost to the world for almost 50 years, the score of the oratorio came to light when Nelly Kravetz went to visit Atovmyan’s daughter, Svetlana Levonovna, in the House of Composers in Moscow. She gave the score to Kravetz, telling her to “Do something to prevent [my father’s] name from being forever confined to oblivion.” Atovmyan arrangement of the film music included changes to the order of the action from that in the film, minor changes to Prokofiev’s scoring, composition and libretto, and “significant alterations to the choral score”.
In the first piece, Egyptian Nights, the narrative passages were performed by two very gifted actors: Simon Callow CBE, and BAFTA award winning actress Miranda Richardson. Both actors had to play multiple roles, with Callow having to play both an aging Caesar and a virile Mark Anthony. His ability to move between contrasting characters with versatility and integrity made for an excellent performance. His heavily Irish-accented fig-seller, who was to sell the fatal asp to Cleopatra, was comic genius. Richardson’s Cleopatra was an excellent developmental exploration of the changes that occurred as the young queen grew into maturity. Her girlish innocence in her scenes with Caesar at the Sphinx contrasted with the warmer, more seductive tones displayed towards the end of the piece.
Musically, while slightly bitty, the score produced some wonderful moments. Prokofiev has a knack of writing beautiful music for the lower strings, particularly the viola and the double bass. It was lovely to hear one of the melodies start in the lower reaches of the cello section, only to find its culmination with the violas. In the scene with solo harp, harpist Rachel Masters produced a languid sound that was both captivating and mournful. Following this was the exquisite humming chorus, which had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. We also received our first hearing of Baritone Andrey Breus, who would hear again later on.
After the interval came the second piece, the oratorio Ivan the Terrible. The opening of the oratorio had the strings powering up and down a series of semi-quaver runs, while the brass came to the fore with Ivan’s theme. The first chorus, A Black Cloud, was well performed, and gave us an inkling of what was to come. Contralto Ewa Podles’ first outing came with the second piece, the Song of the Beaver. Here she portrayed boyarina Yevfrosinya Staritskaya, who is explaining to her son how she plans to depose Ivan, and place him on the throne instead. Podles’ dark contralto was superbly macabre, as she sang the low, chilling phrases. Her black and gold outfit was perfect for the role.
The third piece of the drama was the most brilliant. Here, baritone Andrey Breus took the role of Fyodor Basmanov in the song of the Oprichiniki, the mercenaries of the Tzar. Breus’ voice took the high phrases magnificently, every inch a warrior. His strong voice never became abrasive, and his interplay with the chorus was perfect. He was in a virgin-blue top with oriental trimmings, and knee-length boots. It was a rousing, engaging piece, and as Doundou Tchil of the blog Classical Iconoclast put it: “One should feel fear and revulsion. But the music is so infectious; you're almost drawn into it, which is rather worrying. But then, that's what mobs are like.” The next two pieces, Swan and Anastasia, relate to Anastasia’s marriage to Ivan, and to her poisoning respectively, and were masterfully performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Choir.
In the sixth piece, Ocean-Sea, Ewa Podles returns as Ivan’s elderly nursemaid, who recounts the murder of Ivan’s mother, the regent Elena Glinskaya. Podles’ voice ebbed and flowed like the waters in this most nebulous of arias. Her final dark utterance on the words “Russian Sea” was like hearing the voice of Neptune rise from the cavernous depths of the ocean. The final two pieces, The Capture of Kazanand Magnification, both had moments of fire and glory which filled the hall with fierce energy. The use of the double bass, tuba, contra-bassoon and other bass instruments to portray the cannon at the walls of Kazan was a magnificent piece of orchestration.
It was a fantastic evening, one which has opened my eyes to the music of Prokofiev, and which has inspired me to explore more of his work in the future.
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.