BBC Prom 26: Serpent and Fire

Serpent and Fire
Il Giardino Armonico, Anna Prohaska
Royal Albert Hall. 2 August 2018 

Serpent and Fire is probably a better concert title that ‘Two Suicidal African Queens’, but Anna Prohaska’s exploration of the musical characters of Dido and Cleopatra certainly delved the emotional issues that caused both Queen’s demise. Despite her plea to ‘forget my fate’, Dido’s end is etched in all music-lovers minds, and it closed this late-night BBC Prom. Purcell’s Ah! Belinda providing the opening, introducing the Anna Prohaska’s beautifully clear and pure voice, and her use of the gentlest of vocal inflexions, quite correctly, as an ornament, for which I will readily forgive her the occasional tendency to slightly slur notes together. She later joined the very rare catalogue of early music singers who can produce a proper trill, rather than just relying on vibrato. The curious pauses in Ah! Belinda were the first of a number of directorial oddities provided by conductor Giovanni Antonini.

Anna Prohaska.jpg

Based on the CD released last year under the same title, the programme explored how a wide range of composers presented the two Queen’s, with repertoire ranging over the 100 year period from 1629 (Cavalli) to 1725 (Hasse). Not for the first time, it sounded much better live in the hall, than on the Radio 3 broadcast – available for a while here. With a very wide range of composers and musical styles, linking them into any form of sensible sequence was always going to be tricky. Some of the links worked, but several didn’t, with slightly silly little twiddles linking very different composers, musical styles, and keys. The lesser-known composers proved to be the most interesting, for me at least, one being Antonio Sartorio, whose aria for Cleopatra Non voglio amar from his 1676 Giulio Cesare in Egitto reflected her mercurial character through a florid melodic line. Stamping orchestral feet, a percussive theorbo, and a rather too showy recorder display from conductor Giovanni Antonini didn’t really add much to the mood of the piece. Matthew Locke’s Curtain Tune, from The Tempest (beautifully played by Il Giardino Armonico) was interpolated between the two Sartorio extracts, the second being the self-congratulatory Quando voglio, con un vezzo.

Graupner’s 1707 singspiel Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Hasse’s 1725 Mark Antony and Cleopatra revealed a later compositional style, and Anna Prohaska’s ability to sing in a variety of languages, with commendably clear enunciation. Hasse’s dramatic vocal showpiece Morte col fiero aspetto, was given a powerful performance by Anna Prohaska, producing a ‘they think it’s all over’ moment from the audience whose lengthy applause made the following sequence (Purcell’s Chaconne for the Chinese Man and Woman from the Fairy Queen, and the conclusion of Dido & Aeneas) seem like an encore. The encore, when it eventually came, was Fear no danger with a delightful whoop from Anna Prohaska at the end.

I was impressed with the players of Il Giardino Armonico, particularly their performance of Castello’s 1629 Sonata in D minor, performed with reduced forces and, mercifully, without the look-at-me antics of their conductor, Giovanni Antonini, whose flamboyant style and awkwardly extravagant gestures were irritatingly over the top and seemed focussed more on self-image than any musical considerations. Despite being left to their own devices for once, they somehow managed to demonstrate an excellent sense of timing, cohesion, and expression in this lovely example of the Stylus fantasticus. They should be allowed to try it more often.

Photo: Chris Christodoulou, BBC