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.
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.
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.