Review: Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers (The Barbican, Monday 3 June 2013)
Anna Stéphany (Mezzo-soprano)
Renata Pokupić (Mezzo-soprano)
Karine Deshayes (Mezzo-soprano)
The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment
William Christie (Director)
Alex Ross – in his article on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – wrote that the mezzo was “the most remarkable” singer he had ever heard. I never saw Lorraine Hunt Lieberson live, only ever hearing her on CD and seeing her on DVD. But even then her amazing ability to communicate the meaning of both the music and the words – exactly the “pull-down-the-blinds, unplug- the-telephone, can’t-talk-right-now beautiful” feeling that Ross has about her disc of Handel arias – leaves me in awe.
Last night’s final installment of the OAE’s series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers was a tribute to the singer. The series has been incredible strong in terms both of programming and the high standard of the performances. Here’s hoping that they revisit this kind of programming in future – perhaps a tribute to Faustina Bordoni or another Eighteenth Century singer?
Both William Christie and the Orchestra itself had performed with Hunt Lieberson in the wonderful Peter Sellars Theodora and their performance last night was never less than intensely personal.
In fact I don’t think I have ever heard the OAE sound better. They have always been on of my favourite ensembles. The joy and pleasure they communicate in all their performances is well nigh unique, but last night they surpassed event their own high standard to produce the sort of gutsy, rich and beautifully articulate playing that provided the foundation for a memorable evening.
And William Christie – in his funky red socks – directed with such passion. His attention to each and every phrase, the wonderfully balanced tempi, the dynamic range and the sonorities he drew from the orchestra were evident throughout.
Never has the overture to Giulio Cesare sounded so grand – so grand in fact that the audience had to be prompted to clap, almost as if mentally they were waiting for the complete opera to follow. And in Theodora, Christie created a real sense of threat and urgency that I had not heard in the piece before.
Indeed, where normally the orchestral selections are more often that not viewed as ‘fillers’ between arias by most concert programmer, here together with the two concerti grossi, they were equal to the vocal numbers.
The Concerto Grosso in b minor from Opus 6 is not that often performed. A shame as it is one of the most beautiful and individual of the twelve in the opus. The last in the set and in the unusual b minor key, it is a model-perfect example of the genre and it was played with such intensity. The allegro is for me – in many ways – the ultimate piece of Baroque concerti writing – just listen the passage coming out of the first circle of fifths and you will see what I mean. The elegant and expansive ‘Aria – Larghetto e piano’ was perfectly paced and the final gigue – with its fugue – was sharply etched.
And throughout Kati Debretzeni, Alison Bury and Jonathan Manson shone in the shear vivacity of their playing.
The second concerto grosso from the Opus Three set continued in the same vein. The elegance of the first movement – again with some incredible playing by Mesdames Debretzeni and Bury – was followed by a poignant slow movement. Unfortunately the programme didn’t list the name of the principal oboist who spun that most beautiful melody above the celli obbligato. And in the final movement Christie hinted at its more Galant style.
The arias were drawn from roles most closely associated with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – Theodora, Sesto and Ariodante – and last night three mezzo-sopranos took to the stage.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac was sadly indisposed but was replaced by Karine Deshayes who displayed formidable technique and a dark mezzo in the role of Sesto. A brisk L’angue offesa, with its lush string writing, was confidently delivered but it was in Svegliatevi nel core that Ms Deshayes really shone.
The arias from Theodora – possibly the role most associated with Ms Hunt Lieberson – were sung by Anna Stéphany. Perhaps because of this closer association, the commitment of Ms Stéphany – who has a burnished, bronzed mezzo that was perfectly suited to this music – was complete. Rarely has As with rosy steps the morn been sung with such utter conviction and poignancy and the hushed da capo – most simply ornamented – only heightened the emotional intensity of this aria even more. It was one of the highlights of the evening. And her heartfelt Lord, To Thee each night and day with its contrasting middle section was as memorable in its utter simplicity.
I saw Renata Pokupić only recently as Tirinto in Imeneo and while her voice may not always have carried over the orchestra then, in this concert she had no such trouble. For her were allocated arias at the other end of the Handelian emotional spectrum – from Hercules and Ariodante – and she sung them both with vigor and emotional intensity.
Where Shall I fly? is one of the great mad scenes. Ever. Christie kept a tight handle on the alternation of tempi and accompanied recitative and aria to great effect, giving Ms Pokupić the freedom to express the horror of Dejanira’s actions and allowing her to navigate the vocal gear changes with ease. And what a gown.
Yet Dopo Notte was the highlight of the evening. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson balanced finely wrought arias of emotional white heat with the trickiest coloratura that Handel wrote. Listen to her performance of this aria under McGegan. On stage, a now trousered-up Ms Pokupić equally sang it with the bravado it demands, flinging out with the coloratura with an abandon that belied her incredible technique. It was for me the second highlight of the evening.
The encore was the Musette from the sixth concerto grosso from Opus 6. Although it seems impossible, from somewhere the orchestra pulled out their most sonorous and beautiful playing of the night.
In the programme Martin Kelly, viola player in the OAE and its Vice-Chairman wrote that anyone who had heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was “spellbound by her commitment” and that the concert was to pay tribute to “the memory of a wonderful artist, a musical heroine, in glorious music by a genius, Handel”.
By God they succeeded.