Angela Hicks: channelling Francesca Cuzzoni

Channelling Francesca Cuzzoni
Angela Hicks, Opera Settecento
London Handel Festival
The Charterhouse, 9 March 2023

The first of the London Handel Festival’s ‘Lunchtime in the City’ concerts featured soprano Angela Hicks and Opera Settecento in a concert following the career of the famous 18th-century soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778), one of Handel’s most famous singers. She was born in northern Italy and, after her debut in 1714, spent eight years performing in Florence, Milan, Bologna, Turin), Padua and Venice before her first visit to London in 1722. These early Italian years were represented by the opening showpiece aria Fra catene ognor penando from Vivaldi’s Scanderbeg (RV 732) and gentler Lasciatemi in pace from Orlandini’s 1721 Nerone.

Her early London years were represented by Bononcini, with a teenage instrumental Sinfonia followed by Se perdo il Caro ben from his 1724 Calfumia. Bononcini was to set up a rival opera company to Handel, taking Cuzzoni with him. The competition between Bononcini and Handel led to the first use of the phrase “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” from John Byrom’s ditty

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

Her time with Handel led to the famous story of him threatening to throw her out of the window, an episode partially (and safely) enacted at the start of the encore, Falsa Imagine from Ottone. That period was represented by the two musical highlights of the concert, Handel’s contrasting Affanni del pensier (from Ottone) and Se in fiotito (Giulio Cesare), the latter performed in a curious arrangement where the vocal line was played on the oboe, here with Leo Duarte in dialogue with the impressive violinist Gabriella Jones. Gabriella Jones also excelled as the violin soloist in Handel’s Sinfonia a 5 (HWV 288), usually referred to as a Concerto.

Cuzzoni’s 1734 defection to the rival Opera of the Nobility was covered by Porpora’s Consolata per ch’io sento, from Enea, again with prominent contributions from the oboe. Her complicated and final years back in Italy were represented by the furiously virtuosic Quel nome che ascolto from Il Ciro riconosciuto, one of her last public appearances.

Cuzzoni was clearly a singer of impressive ability. Giovanni Mancini, a contemporary musical commentator referred to her “grateful and touching natural tone”, noting that “Her power of sustaining, increasing, and diminishing her notes by minute degrees acquired for her the credit of being a complete mistress of her art. Her trill was perfect: she had a creative fancy, and a command of tempo rubato. Her high notes were unrivalled in clearness and sweetness, and her intonation was so absolutely true that she seemed incapable of singing out of tune. Her style was unaffected, simple, and sympathetic.” Quantz wrote that “her style of singing was innocent and affecting” and that her ornaments “took possession of the soul of every auditor, by her tender and touching expression”.

The same can be said of Angela Hicks. She has a beautifully clear and articulate tone, with a natural agility in her voice that is most evident in the way she integrates ornaments and vocal flourishes into the musical flow. Her engaging stage presence, using simple hand gestures, adds to her communicative skills. The purity of her tone is a real test of intonation, lacking the cover-all ‘safety’ of the unstylistic vibrato that so often spoils music of this period. Over many years my main criticism of the London Handel Festival’s Handel singing competition is that the singers, however talented they may be as singers of a later repertoire, are very rarely Handelian singers – the whole point of the competition. In comparison, Angela Hicks has a voice and technique that, in my opinion, is ideal for Handel along with most of the early music repertoire.

As a footnote, I must comment that, apart from one word, there was, unforgivably, no information in the festival programme book or on the concert handout about Angela Hicks There was plenty of space on the handout to have given a CV to match that of Opera Settecento. In addition, and perhaps it was because this concert came the day after International Women’s Day, I was troubled by another aspect of the publicity and programme for this concert. The ‘one word’ used in both was to describe Angela Hicks as “ravishing”. Is it really appropriate to describe a female musician in such a loaded manner? The term can only be intended as a reference to physical appearance. Although it is far from an inaccurate description, there are far more appropriate musical attributes that could have been used.

That said, Burney described Cuzzoni as “short and squat, with a doughy cross face, but fine complexion”.