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.
Vivaldi's first Opera, Ottone in Villa, was premiered on 17th May 1713, in Vicenza, Italy. An adaptation of a libretto for an earlier opera, Messalina, Ottone in Villa transforms Emperor Claudius into Emperor Otho (Ottone) and Messalina into Cleonilla, a non-historical character.
Ottone, hopelessly in love with Cleonilla, fails to notice that she is acting like a hussy, courting not one, but two other men, Caio and Ostilio, even though his faithful servant Decio tries desperately to warn him on more than one occasion. Caio, Cleonilla's primary plaything, is unceremoniously dumped for Ostilio, who is more beautiful that Caio. The reason that Ostilio is more 'beautiful' is that Ostilio is, in reality, a woman! More than that, Ostilio is none other than Tullia, the woman Caio dumped in order to cuckold Ottone.
Tullia planed to kill or discredit Cleonilla, and to extract a confession of guilt and forgiveness from Caio, but Caio is unrepentant, and Tullia spends much time vascillating between her need for vengence and her love for Caio. In a wonderful scene, where she hides, listening to Caio's lament, she mocks him from afar, in a duet which is interestingly orchestrated - main orchestra plus two violins and two recorders, all doing different things, while Caio is left to wonder who this strange disembodied voice is that mocks him, and wonders if he is loosing his grip on sanity.
In a final scene, where Ottone and Decio walk in to find Cleonilla in an amourous embrace with Ostilio/Tullia, and Caio in a murderous rage at his 'rival', Ostilio reveals her true identity as Tullia, clears Cleonilla of all culpability, and claims that Caio is the real villain. Cleonilla, thinking quickly on her feet, claims to Ottone that she only embraced Ostilio/Tullia because she was aware of her true identity, and was trying to help reunite Tullia and Caio.
Ottone, still madly and foolishly in love, believes her, and asks her forgiveness for thinking badly of her. He also orders Caio to marry Tullia, which of satisfies Tullia no end. Caio, seeing he writing on the wall, asks forgiveness of Tullia, which she readily gives. And Cleonilla, in an aside otthe audience, promises to be a better person in future.
Confused? Well, this intrigue-laden plot throws up some real musical gems.
The performance at the Barbican Centre in London was as sparce visually as the orchestration. But this complemented, rather than detracted from, the music. The cast was:
Ottone: Sonia Prina (Contralto)
Caio: Juila Lezhneva (Soprano)
Cleonilla: Veronica Cangemi (Soprano)
Ostilio/Tullia: Roberta Invernizzi (Soprano)
Decio: Topi Lehtipuu (Tenor)
It was performed in concert style, with two singers, Invernizzi and Lezhneva, to the left of the conductor, and the rest to his right. The orchestra was Il Giardino Armonico, and the conductor Giovanni Antonini, both superb, especially first violinist Stefano Barneschi, as he played the solo virtuoso violin part Vivaldi had written for himself.
First up, let's take a look at Sonia Prina's interpretation of Ottone. Originally written for Contralto Diana Vico, the part of Ottone hangs low in tessitura, and is full of wonderful coloratura. Prina takes to the role with ease, and fires of the rapid passages with skill and precision. Her rich voice gives her the clout to perform this 'trouser' role with authenticity, yet without sacrificing ease of movement.
Her Ottone is painfully credulous, as the characterisation demands, yet the sense of power and authority never leave her. She raised a few laughs too, especially in her confusion about Ostilio/Tullia. An excellent performance, though I for one wished she had more to do.
Next, Veronica Cangemi as Cleonilla. I was slightly disappointed as her voice was much smaller than I had expected. She was in fact louder and more expressive during the Recitative parts than in the arias where, in a couple of places, I had difficulty hearing her. Given I was only eight rows away from the stage, I would expect a little more volume.
Her characterisation was solid, if uninspired, and perhaps slightly less self assured and carefree than I would have expected for a woman juggling three suitors. Her technical performance was spot on, however, and her comedic interactions with the other performers in Act 3 were more in character.
Juila Lezhneva stole the night for me. I was amazed by the power, skill and depth of character she gave to the role of Caio. It was originally written for a Soprano Castrato, and this was reflected in the difficulty of some of the fast passages, as well as in the longer phrases.
Born in 1989, Lezhneva displayed supprising maturity in the role. The Act 1 aria Gelosia (Jealousy) really showed her skill, and she captivated the audience from the onset. Her coloratura was flawless, and her characterisation perfect. I am looking forward to hearing more from this up-and-coming young Russian.
Playing two characters of different genders in the same performance is not always easy, but Roberta Invernizzi gave real depth to both personalities, as well as managing to merge the vengeful traits of Tullia with the sweetness of Ostilio as the drama progressed. Her comic movements and facial expressions added to the portrayal, especially when showing her disdain for Caio while Lezhneva performed her arias.
The highlight for me from Invernizzi was her gentle, caustic mocking of Caio during the duet 'L'ombre l'aure, e ancora il rio', where Invernizzi removed to the back of the stage while Lezhneva lamented her character's sorrow.
Click here for a sneeky video taken by one of the audience members on the night. It is of Invernizzi singing the aria 'Misero spirto mio'.
The other surprise of the evening was the Tenor Topi Lehtipuu. Born in Australia, studied in Helsinki, and now resident in Paris, Lehtipuu came to Opera via a progressive rock-band, "inspired by music ranging from Gregorian Chant to heavy metal". His characterisation of Decio was excellent, and he made the most of the comic moments alloted to the role.
His high, supple Tenor effortlessly navigated the complex coloratura, and his interplay with Prina was perfectly co-ordinated. He smashed onto the Opera scene playing the part of Tamino in Die Zauberflote, and given his performance here, I can see why he was an instant hit. This is another performer I look forward to hearing more from.
All in all, Ottone in Villa was a definate hit. The soloists and the orchestra will be reuniting to take their roles once again in the recording studio. It will be a recording that I will definately purchase.