Glyndebourne’s La Finta Giarineira

Rather surprisingly, given Glyndebourne’s devotion to Mozart, La Finta Giardiniera was the first time they have staged any of his early operas (6 July 2014). Although obviously not on a par with the da Ponte operas, these earlier works are fascinating.  Had he died aged 20, I reckon Mozart would still rate pretty highly in musical history. That said, La Finta Giardiniera is not amongst the Mozart greats, and needs careful handling. Covent Garden didn’t altogether succeed in their troubled 2006 attempt although, more recently, the Academy of Music gave a commendable concert performance at The Barbican.

The plot is the usual nonsense. Nardo (who is really Roberto disguised as a gardener) loves Serpetta who loves Don Anchise who loves Sandrina (who is really the Marchioness Violante, and is also disguised as the ‘secret gardener’ of the title) who loves Count Belfiore (who previously stabbed her and left her for dead) who loves Arminda who used to love Ramiro but jilted him and would be very surprised if he happened to turn up unexpectedly. Musically, the 19-year old Mozart is starting to challenge the supremacy of opera buffa by introducing elements of opera seria, treating this buffa plot with seria intensity. The opening is pure buffa, with the characters appearing to be happy bunnies until you hear the words of the individual solos and asides. Another feature of this work is Mozart’s early development of his complex Act finales, one magnificent example coming at the end of the first act.

Director Frederic Wake-Walker set the goings-on in a Germanic Rococco-style room, the fabric of which deconstructed as the evening progresses, as did some of the characters. Christiane Karg’s Sandrina was the vocal highlight from a very strong young cast, her pure tone contrasting with the rather silly portrayals of Belfiore (Joel Prieto) as a wimp and Ramiro (Rachel Frenkel) as a Goth. Robin Ticciati (Glyndebourne’s music director) directed the ever-excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with a fine sense of pace. But, even with cuts, it was a rather long three hours.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/glyndebournes-la-finta-giarineira/]

Mark Rylance v Iestyn Davies

As television screens seemed to be filled with lingering shots of Mark Rylance in his role as Thomas Cromwell in BBC’s Wolf Hall, he returned to his old hunting ground at the Shakespeare Globe to take the role of the dotty Philippe V of Spain, patron of Farinelli, in Claire van Kampen’s play with music ‘Farinelli and the King’ (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 24 Feb).  In a role that he could have been born to play, the mercurial Rylance mischievously teased and inveigled the audience into the world of the complexly depressive King, starting with the very opening scene where he chats to his goldfish as he tries to catch it with a fishing rod.

Better known as the composer of the music for many of the Globe’s Shakespeare productions (and, perhaps, also as Mrs Rylance) this was Claire van Kampen’s debut as a playwright.  She has produced a play that is full of humour and sensitive insight into the world of madness and depression, as well as a fascinating insight into the world of Farinelli in the court of the crazy king.  In a similarly excellent performance, the appropriately named Melody Grove played the King’s wife, Isabella, who had procured Farinelli from London to aid the King.   Sam Crane acted the role of Farinelli, but in an clever twist to the play, we also had the outstanding countertenor Iestyn Davies taking on the singing side of Farinelli’s life, the combination of both sides of Farinelli’s personality on stage at the same time adding a fascinating psychological aspect to the evening.  This worked a great deal better than I thought it would, and proved to be an illuminating insight into the often divided personalities of performers, with Farinelli’s insecure and reticent side becoming all too evident as the evening progressed, and as his relationship with Philippe and Isabella grew stronger.

The miniature band of musicians was directed from the harpsichord by Robert Howarth, although unfortunately his pre-play playing was drowned out by the chatter of the excitably audience.  I was rather glad that, despite Rylance’s extraordinary (and unashamedly crowd-pleasing) acting, it was for Iestyn Davies that the audience reserved its strongest applause.  And so they should.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/mark-rylance-v-iestyn-davies/]

Vivaldi’s “L’Oracolo in Messenia”

Although initially sceptical, I have grown to respect the Barbican’s tradition of concert performances of operas.  Without the distraction of staging or directorial imposition, there is the chance to concentrate on the music itself.  One fine example of this came with the performance of Vivaldi’s pasticcio opera L’Oracolo in Messenia of 1737 (20 Feb).

Vivaldi’s habit of living and travelling with his former pupil Anna Girò (some 32 years younger than him) seems to have been instrumental in the genesis of this work, after the Archbishop of Ferrara refused him entry to his city on the grounds of his companion.  Vivaldi hurriedly arranged a season at Venice’s Teatro S Angelo which opened with L’Oracolo in Messenia.  As with so many of Vivaldi’s operas, only the libretto exists, but Fabio Biondi has reconstructed the musical score from clues as to the pieces that Vivaldi collected together, drawing on the Giacomelli work that Vivaldi used as the basis for his pasticcio.  

As is often the case in Vivaldi (and indeed in many other composers), the real musical interest often lay in the accompaniment, rather than the vocal line.  That said, there were some spectacular showpiece arias, the most extraordinary coming towards the end of Act 2 when Trasimede (the young Russian Julia Lezhneva, in one of the three trouser roles) who had hitherto had a relatively quite time suddenly burst into a stunningly virtuosic aria (Son qual nave, originally written for Farinelli by his brother Ricardo Broschi) that not only produced by far the loudest audience applause but also a young man who leapt onto the stage from the audience to present her with a bunch of flowers – not, I think, a spur of the moment thing, but nonetheless well deserved.

In a very strong vocal cast, the stand-out singers were Magnus Staveland (despite his voice sometimes seeming rather too nice for the villain Polifonte, who has murdered the previous King and all but one of his children and is now after his widow, Merope), Marianne Beate Kielland as the tragic heroine Merope, notably with her impressive mad scene, Vivica Genaux as Epitide, her clear voice having a fine lower register, albeit with rather too much vibrato for my taste, and Franziska Gottwald as the ambassador Licisco, making much of one of the lesser roles.  Of the remaining cast, Marina de Liso’s persistent vibrato was a turn-off, and Robert Enticknap, playing another nasty chap, struggled to demonstrate his ability in such a strong cast.  It takes a bit of a culture shift to appreciate the 18th century love of pasticcio opera, but this was certainly an effort by Fabio Biondi that was well worth while.  He also impressed as a director, leading his excellent group Europa Galante with his violin, and showing great respect for his singers and fellow musicians.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/vivaldis-loracolo-in-messenia/]

The Baroque Trumpet  

As if to counter the normal accusation that trumpeters sidle on stage towards the end of the evening to take the bulk of the applause for their brief, but usually spectacular, contribution (to the chagrin of the violinists and continuo players who have laboured away all evening for a great deal less recognition), the Academy of Ancient Music devoted a whole evening to music for trumpets (Milton Court, 18 Feb).   It turned out to be a curious affair, starting with the (unusually) far from note perfect little opening fanfare from the evening’s director, David Blackadder.  A suite of three Bach Cantata Sinfonia’s followed (from cantatas 29, 150 & 249), my principal gripe being that Alistair Ross, the organ soloist in the opening Sinfonia, was not acknowledged as such in the programme.  A related gripe was that the weedy little box organ was more-or-less inaudible above the over-strong string playing, a question of balance that should have been sorted out in rehearsal or at the previous day’s concert in Cambridge.  It is a major failing of most Bach performances (not just in the UK) that the sound of the organ is not heard as it would have been in Bach’s day, when the organ accompaniment would usually have been a full-scale church, rather than tiny continuo, organ.  The evening continued with a range of music for up to three trumpets (played by David Blackadder, Phillip Bainbridge and Robert Vanryne) by the likes of Biber, Corelli, Vivaldi, and Telemann, with the Bach Concerto for two violins thrown in for balance, the latter played by Bojan Čičić and Rebecca Livermore.  The trumpet focus seemed to be on the spectacular, rather than the melodic, which was a shame as one of Blackadder’s greatest achievements is often in the gently melodic moments that the baroque trumpet can excel in.  Overall, the programme didn’t really hang together as a musical unity.  Perhaps trumpeters are better off wandering in towards the end?

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/the-baroque-trumpet/]

A spy at The Globe

The Shakespeare Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse continued with its enterprising series of candle-lit musical events with ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’ (8 Feb 2015).  The four singers of Alamire (along with The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble) presenting extracts from the British Library’s sumptuous manuscript (Roy 8.g.vii) produced in Antwerp at the workshop of Petrus Imhoff, who changed his name to the more musically appropriate Alamire (A-la-mi-re, as he often signed his name).

Like many musicians of his time, Alamire was a spy who was well acquainted with many of the crowned heads of Europe, including Maximillian, Charles V and Christian II of Denmark.  He acted for Henry VIII against the exiled Yorkist pretender, Richard de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.  He also presented Henry VIII with many musical gifts, including this enormous parchment manuscript, but amid accusations of counter-espionage he didn’t even receive thanks for his efforts, or his gifts.  It was therefore perhaps apt that it turns out that the manuscript was in fact second hand, having been originally intended for Louise XII of France and Anne of Brittany.  But, on the death of both of them, Alamire changed the dedication, and some of the words, to Henry and Catherine of Aragon who, like Louise and Anne, were desperate for a child.  And so it is that London now has a collection of 34 motets works by the likes of Mouton, Josquin, Isaac and de la Rue.

Alamire’s director, David Skinner, conducted and introduced the story behind the manuscript.  The whole manuscript has been recorded by substantially larger Alamire forces.  The singing (from Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Todd, Greg Skidmore and Rob Macdonald) was outstanding, as was the instrumental contributions, although I found the tenor shawm a rather better blend with the cornett and sackbuts than the alto shawm.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/a-spy-at-the-globe/]

Wind in Basingstoke

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought their programme of music for winds to Basingstoke’s Anvil, the day after their performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (6 Feb).  Under the banner of the OAE’s ‘Flying the Flag’ series, they focussed on central Europe and Bohemia, with Mozart and his little-known friend Josef Mysliveček, as well as the later Bohemian composer Josef Triebensee, who arranged movements of Don Giovanni for the Prince of Lichenstein’s harmonie wind band around 1790.  The evening opened with Mozart’s monumental so-called ‘Gran Partita’ (Serenade No 10 for 13 wind instruments); nearly an hour of music of the most extraordinary intensity, and given an exceptional performance by the OAE players.  I particularly liked the way that they slightly extended some key rests, adding to the air of suspense.  Josef Mysliveček met the young Mozart in Bologna, and was an early influence despite their later falling out.  The composer of some 29 operas and 55 Symphonies, the jolly little Wind Octet No.2 in E flat (discovered not so long ago in a pile of manuscripts in the Black Forest) was probably not the finest work to display his talents, but the OAE (in the more traditional wind band grouping of 8 players) bought out his humour of his writing, not least in one little passage where a oboe scale was finished off, after a slight pause, by the second oboe.  The choice of Triebensee’s arrangement of Don Giovanni was apt, as the opera itself includes an on-stage wind band playing an arrangement of Mozart’s own Figaro – Mozart’s dig at the bourgeoisie habit of background music.  A fine oboist himself, Triebensee played the tricky second oboe part in the first performance of The Magic Flute, and makes much of the oboe in his arrangements, generally of soprano arias.  Although lacking a vocal line, his arrangements are clever reinterpretations of Mozart’s originals, and formed a light-hearted end to what had possible been a rather heavy evening for Basingstoke’s concert goers.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/wind-in-basingstoke-6-feb-2015/]

Cardinall’s @ Cadogan

The Psalms of David are a key part of the liturgy of Christian and Jewish worship, and were rather nicely described by the (un-named) programme note writer of The Cardinall’s Musick concert (Cadogan Hall, 5 Feb) as a “collection of praises and complaints, benedictions and moans … dealing with the problems of ordinary life”.  Their programme looked at two of the many possible musical genres, comparing the European Catholic tradition of the 16th century with that of the English church of the same period, described by director Andrew Carwood as a collection of “sorbets and grand dishes”.

The 10 singers were used in many different formations, only coming together at the end of each half, firstly for the Allegri Miserere and then Byrd’s joyful Laudibus in sanctis.  After the opening Jubilate Deo by Giovanni Gabrieli, the first half was built around three of Victoria’s large-scale double-choir Vespers Psalm settings, Nisi Dominus, Dixit Dominus and Laudate Dominum.  These were contrasted with more intimate settings, notably Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis, with its closely-wrought stepwise musical lines, and the Ad Dominum cum tribularer by Lassus with its contrast between high and low voices.  The often intense English settings were intended for a very different liturgical purpose, usually as anthems during Evensong or Mattins, or for more private devotions.   Only with the opening Gibbons’ ‘O clap your hands together’ and the final Byrd Laudibus in sanctis did the English music approach the grandeur of Victoria’s settings.  Indeed, it was the intimate and madrigal-like ‘O Lord in thy wrath’ and Laboravi in gemitu meo (by Gibbons and Weelkes respectively) that were the emotional highlights for me.

The rather youthful photographs of Andrew Carwood and Cardinall’s Musick belied the fact that they are in their 25th year.  They were on excellent form on this occasion, their forthright vocal style ideal for the large-scale works as well as seeking out the emotional intensity of the more intimate works.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/cardinalls-cadogan-5-feb-2015/]

King’s College Minimalism at Kings Place

Included within the year-long Kings Place ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’ festival, Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College Cambridge devised a programme based around plainchant (4 Feb).  They combined this with their own celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the completion of their Chapel and reflections on the College’s (and their sister foundation of Eton College) founder Henry VI and their patron, the Virgin Mary.  The result was a complete Sarum Rite plainsong Vespers In Nativitate Beatae Maria Virginis (including Dunstable’s Ave Maria Stella and Magnificat secundi toni) and a recreated Mass sequence De Beatae Maria Virginis, incorporating music from the Old Hall Manuscript by Damett, Bittering, Power and ‘Roy Henry’.  Each half ended with a piece from the Eton Choir Book.  The Vespers was enclosed within Robert Parsons’ Ave Maria and the Old Hall Salve Regina by Robert Hacomplaynt, the interestingly surnamed Provost of Kings from 1509-28.  The more elaborate flowing melismas of the Vesper antiphons provided contrast to the simpler melodic lines of the  Psalms.  Despite any possible arguments of authenticity, I do find the habit of over-lengthening the silence in the middle of a chant verse, and then almost overlapping the end of one verse with the start of the next, rather curious.  The 16 choral scholars (nearly all undergraduates, judging by their academic gowns) were joined by 17 boy choristers for the large-scale pieces that opened and closed each half.   Although it was a slightly curious notion to include music of this period in a festival of minimalism – and, of course, it would have sounded very different if the King’s College Choir had been singing on home turf – this was a fascinating and musically compelling insight into musical and liturgical history.  It was also a fine example of the outstanding music making that goes on day by day in our cathedrals and college foundations.

The Sixteen’s Vespers – Guildford Cathedral

Such is the profile and schedule of The Sixteen that I was surprised to find that their short tour of the Monteverdi Vespers was the first time they had toured with orchestra and choir together. Of their eight venues (six cathedrals, and two concert halls), I saw them in Guildford Cathedral (on 30 Jan), a pared-down Gothic building designed in the 1930s and finally opened in 1961. The acoustics are good, at least from my seat close to the performers, who were positioned in what would have been termed ‘the crossing’ (in front of the choir and chancel) if there had been proper transepts. Very professional looking TV cameras broadcast to monitors to the sell-out audience down the long nave. The sequence of movements was what has become the traditional one, as were several other aspects of the performance including, arguably, taking the sequialtera passages too fast. The (more substantial) Magnificat was sung at higher pitch. With 20 singers and 24 instrumentalists, this was an aurally powerful performance, although the tiny box organ was only occasionally audible. The use of such organs is common in the UK although I urge you to try and hear the Vespers (and any Bach cantatas, for that matter) performed with a church organ (for example, see my review of the Cantar Lontano recording in the October 2014 Early Music Review). The rest of the continuo group was cello, violone, chitarrone, harp and dulcian, with string/recorders and cornett/sackbuts divided left and right. The vocal soloists, all stepping forward from the choir, were sopranos Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs, tenors Mark Dobell and Jeremy Budd and basses Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan – all most impressive. Relatively limited use was made of the available space, the main exception being the tenor/theorbo duet Nigra Sum which was performed from halfway down the central aisle, and Jeremy Budd singing Audi coelum from the pulpit. The echo passages were sung from somewhere towards the altar.   As with their other cathedral venues, the singers in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria were the local cathedral choristers, in this case Guildford’s very able girls choir.

Locke’s Tempest by candlelight

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment continued their collaboration with The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with an imaginative performance of Matthew Locke’s music for the 1674 production of The Tempest (or Enchanted Island), devised and directed by Elizabeth Kenny with stage direction and text adaptation by Caroline Williams. Following the Musica Brittannica edition, the music included additional pieces by Pelham Humphrey, Reggio, Banister, Purcell and Hart. The five OAE instrumentalists were joined by three singers, two boy trebles together with two actors who cleverly acted all the parts in the extracts from the rather curious version of Shakespeare’s play for which Locke provided the music. Despite the oddities of the text, this Tempest was extraordinarily popular at the time, with frequent revivals over the following 150 years. Although 21st century eyes and ears might not rate the play quite so highly, setting Locke’s relatively well-known music in the context of at least part of the spoken text and stage action does help with understanding the context of music like this. Along with Purcell’s examples, this repertoire is difficult to slot into the mainstream European musical tradition of the late 17th century. The Wanamaker Playhouse is a gloriously intimate space for such performances, the candle lighting added much to the atmosphere. This was a lively and, at times, very funny production, not least when one of the actors portrayed a sword fight by playing both characters at the same time. The impressive singers were Katherine Watson, Frazer B Scott and Samuel Boden.

Bach: St Matthew Passion (1727 version)

Bach St Matthew Passion (1727 version)
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr.
AAM Records. AAM004.  

Richard Egarr director & harpsichord, James Gilchrist Evangelist, Matthew Rose Jesus, Elizabeth Watts soprano, Sarah Connolly alto, Thomas Hobbs tenor, Christopher Maltman bass. Choir of the AAM.   3 CDs. 58’40+49’39+36’19=144’38

Richard Egarr’s introductory article to this new recording of Bach’s most famous work is headed ‘Oh No, not again’.  It concludes with ‘Don’t be a bowl of petunias’, an enigmatic reference to the frequently reincarnated bowl of petunias in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’.  His article questions the perceived wisdom of assuming that later incarnations of a piece of music are inevitably the best and most complete.  Like Handel, Bach often changed and re-ordered his music, often for the most pragmatic of reasons.  Normally heard in the version developed from performances in 1736, 1742 and 1746, the Academy of Ancient Music has returned to its first known incarnation of the Matthew Passion, dating from an (assumed) Good Friday Vespers performance in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche in 1727.  This early version was copied down a few years after Bach’s death by a pupil of one of Bach’s singers, but we do not know why.  It is a remarkable survival.

There are several differences from the later version, many very subtle.  The major ones include the fact that the double choir and orchestra structure is weakened by having just one continuo group, rather than two.  This implies that the two choirs and their orchestras would have been positioned closer together, as they are on this recording.  In contrast, the separation of the two orchestras is then emphasised by having both orchestra leaders (rather than just one) take on the two big violin solos, the solo in Erbame dich played from orchestra 2, accompanied by orchestra 1, with Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder the other way round.  Part One ends, not with the usual O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, but with the simply-stated chorale Jesum lass ich nicht von mir.  The Second Part opens with Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hun!, but sung by a bass rather than an alto. This might have spiritual significance, but could equally have been the purely practical result of which singer happened to be in best voice at the time. Perhaps the most distinctive change from the later version comes closer to the end, with the famous bass aria Komm, süßes Kreuz.  This is normally the moment when the viola da gamba player takes centre stage for the complex obligato accompaniment.  But here Bach chooses the elegiac sound of the solo lute (with organ), a strikingly compelling tonal alteration to the more usual sound.  Other changes in instrumentation include the use of the organ and winds (rather than a ripieno choir or soloist) to bring out chorale melody in the opening chorus. More subtle changes are found in the relative reduction in ornamentation, notably in the lack of appoggiaturas (for example, in the orchestral accompaniment of So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen) – often tricky in performance.

Stephen Rose’s intelligent programme note introduces the liturgical and musical background to the Leipzig Passion.  It is difficult to imagine the response of the Leipzig congregation to first hearing a work of such power, but Rose helpfully analyses the Passion’s arias within the context of Luther’s 1519 three stages of meditation and contemplation on the Passion story, something listeners of the day would have understood better than we do today.

The Academy of Ancient Music field a strong cast of soloists and instrumentalists, with an exceptional performance from James Gilchrist as the ever-communicative Evangelist.  The two 10-strong choirs give gutsy readings of the turbo choruses although, when at full throttle, the sopranos display rather too much vibrato for my taste.

Richard Egarr’s interpretation is characteristically distinctive, not least for his occasionally relaxed approach to pulse and rubato.  For example, in the alto aria, Buß und Rei, (CD1:10) he lingers on the penultimate note of phrases, perhaps signifying the repentance and regret of the opening line. Moments like this certainly attracted attention on my first listen, but I found my initial surprise lessened with repeated listening.  Indeed, the performance as a whole combines musically strength with sensitivity, and can be thoroughly recommended, not just for the undoubted importance of hearing this rarely performed 1727 version.  I have only heard it live once before, during the 2012 Leipzig Bachfest performed by Bach Collegium Japan and the Tölzer Knabenchors under Masaaki Suzuki.

The CD was recorded over a 7-day period in St Jude-on-the-Hill, with Philip Hobbs as the distinguished producer and engineer.  It comes in a hardback booklet format, with the full text and an English translation. A sound sample and an introductory video can be found at http://www.aam.co.uk/#/recordings/discography/js-bach/bach-matthew-passion.aspx.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/29/bach-st-matthe…n-1727-version/]

AAM Mat Pass

Mozart 250 – ‘Capricious Lovers’ & ‘An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment’

Mozart in London Festival
Classical Opera, Ian Page

Classical Opera launched their ambitious ‘Mozart 250’ project with a ‘Mozart in London’ Festival weekend of events at Milton Court.  The 250 of the project’s title refers to the years since Mozart’s childhood visit to London (23 April 1764), during which he composed his first significant works. The plan is to “follow the chronological trajectory of Mozart’s life, works and influences”, culminating in 2041, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s death. The weekend included talks, discussions and concerts over a three-day period.  I attended the events on Saturday 21 February, starting with the discussion on Mozart in London between Cliff Eisen, Ian Page, David Vickers and Andrew McGregor.

The first of the two Saturday concerts was ‘Capricious Lovers’, a look at English opera at the time of Mozart’s visit. Extracts from six operas (performed between 2 November 1764 and 15 February 1765) gave a fascinating insight into London musical life over this very brief period.  The first half concentrated on works given in Drury Lane, with George Rush’s The Capricious Lovers, Michael Arne & Jonathan Battishill’s Almena and William Bates’. PharnacesThe second half focussed on Covent Garden, with Thomas Arne’s The Guardian Outwitted, Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes and the pasticcio Maid of the Mill.  Under the baton of Ian Page, sopranos Rebecca Bottone & Sarah-Jane Brandon, mezzo Samantha Price and tenor Robert Murray were joined by The Orchestra of Classical Opera in a well-chosen range of arias, duets, trios, together with overtures from Capricious Lovers and The Guardian Outwitted.  The highlight was the delightful duet ‘O dolly, I part / with a hole in my heart’ from The Guardian Outwitted sung by a coquettish Rebecca Bottone & Robert Murray.

Drury Lane and Covent Garden were the two London theatres licensed to stage plays and operas in English – the reserve for Italian opera was the King’s Theatre, Haymarket.  Under the title of ‘An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment’, the evening concert looked at the music performed there between 24 November 1764 and May 1765.  Alongside J.C.Bach’s Adriano in Siria and Mattia Vento’s Demofoonte, we heard extracts from the pasticcio operas Ezio, Berenice and Solimano, including pieces by Pescetti and Perez as well as Bach and Vento. As in the earlier Handel days, the King’s Theatre attracted some of the finest singers of the time.  Sopranos Martene Grimson & Anna Devin and mezzo Samantha Price were the very impressive representatives of the original singers, soprano Teresa Scotti and the castrati Ferdinando Tenducci and Giovanni Manzuoli.  It was immediately apparent that the Italian style came with harmonically and instrumentally richer accompaniments than their English cousins in the other place.  This concert was preceded by a talk from Daniel Snowman on ‘A Night at the London Opera in Mozart’s London’, reflecting a rather different interpretation of the period and the life of the Mozart family than that expressed in the earlier discussion.

This is an extraordinary project, not least for the length of programme through to 2041. On the basis of this one day, Ian Page and Classical Opera have set themselves an enterprising and important sequence of events, running through to 2041.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/mozart-250-capricious-lovers-an-exotic-and-irrational-entertainment/]

‘Bewitched’

Bewitched
Les Passions de l’Ame, Robin Johannsen, Meret Lüthi.
Deutsche harmonia mundi / Sony Music 88843040882.  60’06.
Corelli La Follia; Geminiani ‘The Enchanted Forest’; Handel Armida abbandonata.

Bewitched
I praised the début CD (‘Spicy’, Deutsche harmonia mundi  88883748742) from the Swiss violinist Meret Lüthi and her Bern-based period-instrument orchestra, Les Passions de l’Ame in my review in Early Music Review (February 2014).  I am equally impressed with their second CD.  As with ‘Spicy’ they have produced an imaginative programme, in this case combining two pieces linked to the story of the crusader Rinaldo and his doomed love affair with the sorceress Armida, as told by Torquato Tasso in his La Gerusalemme Liberata.  After the opening salvo of Corelli’s La Follia variations, intended to represent the wildly contrasted emotions of Armida, we hear the first part of Francesco Geminiani’s orchestral suite ‘The Enchanted Forest’ (La Foresta Incantata), incidental music written for a 1754 pantomime ballet in the Grand Théâtre du Palais de Tuileries in Paris based on Tasso’s story. We do not know how the music would have been performed in the original production, as all that survives is this two-part suite, a collection of dance-like pieces of varying length and mood.

After the first part of the Enchanted Forest (in d minor), we hear Handel’s c1708 take on the story, the dramatic secular cantata Armida abbandonata (Dietro l’orme fugaci, HWV 105) for solo soprano, sung by the American soprano Robin Johannsen. I was impressed by Robin Johannsen when I first heard her in Hasse’s Romolo ed Ersilia at the 2011 Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik. Her singing is beautifully clear and focused, with a sensitively honed vocal timbre and an effective use of ornaments and da capo elaborations and the occasional use of a very gentle vibrato to colour the notes. She captures the contrasting moods of Handel’s exquisite cantata to perfection.  The opening accompagnato is interesting for having the continuo accompaniment provided by the solo violin alone, played by the director of Les Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi.

We then return to the D major second part of The Enchanted Forest, the sensuous and subdued opening very effectively continuing the desolate mood of the Siciliana at the end of Armida abbandonat, before the full orchestra, with trumpet and horns blazing, takes overThe central part of the second half is a dramatic multi-section piece that could be a mini-opera in its own right. The playing of the 19 musicians of Les Passions de l’Ame is excellent, and is combined with sensitive continuo accompaniment to the Handel.  Merit Lüthi directs from the violin with an impressively light touch, bringing out both the Italian and French influences in Geminiani’s music.  At the time, Charles Burney thought he was too French, and the French thought he was too Italian! Today we appreciate the benefits of both musical styles.

You can hear extracts on the Les Passions de l’Ame website at http://lespassions.ch/cms/en/discography

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/24/bewitched-robin-johannsen-les-passions-de-lame-meret-luthi/]

HANDEL ORGAN RECITAL. St George’s, Hanover Sq. 7 April 1:10.

The London Handel Festival and Mayfair Organ Concerts present a lunchtime organ recital by

Andrew Benson-Wilson

Handel Overtures and Organ Concertos, arranged for solo organ by Handel, Babell and Walsh c 1755. Played on the ‘Handel House’ chamber organ and the 2012 Richards Fowkes & Co organ in Handel’s own church of St George, Hanover Square in London’s Mayfair. SGHS Handel organ_crop 2

Orfeo at the Roundhouse

The Roundhouse is the latest of the Royal Opera House’s ventures away from Covent Garden, another being the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at The Globe. The circular building (a former engine shed in North London, and one of my haunts in earlier rock concert days) made an impressive, if acoustical tricky, venue for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The audience sit in a 270° arc around the off-centre circular stage with the instrumentalists of the Early Opera Company at the back of the stage.

The Prologue opened with a young and rather sour looking Pluto and his entourage processing down a long sloping gangway onto the stage and up to a raised dais above the orchestra and what turned out to be the entrance to Hades. The gods were accompanied by be-robed priests who turned out to be the three Pastore (billed as ‘Pastors’ – very droll). It had the air of a court house, with the gods sitting in judgement as the scene unfolded below. Musica (who turns into Euridice via an on-stage costume change) sat with Orfeo draped pieta-like across her lap, a touching scene reversed at the end of the evening.The only prop was a simple chair, with the other scenes created by a lively group of 14 child dancers and acrobats (from East London Dance) who created arches through which the protagonists moved, as well as the ripples of the Styx.

This was the first attempt at opera direction by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s former Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and he sensibly resisted the temptation to overly embellish the plot. The sparse setting allowed the focus to be on the music itself, something that the young singers rose to with considerable aplomb. The Transylvanian baritone, Gyula Orendt was a most impressive Orfeo, the clarity of his voice overcoming some slight pronunciation difficulties and the curious spectacle of him being hoisted precariously into the air at the end. Mary Bevan was outstanding as Euridice and Musica, both with her acting and the beauty of her voice. The other members of the cast were of a similar high standard, including the chorus drawn from Guildhall students. However, I was not convinced about casting Susan Bickley as the Messenger. The playing of the Early Opera Company and Christopher Moulds’ musical direction was spot on. There is more I could write about some of the production issues, but will certainly remember this as a fine musical event.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/23/orfeo-at-the-roundhouse-16-jan-2015/]