Review – Handel & The Rival Queens (St. John’s, Smith Square, Saturday 26 May 2012) and L’Olimpiade (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Monday 28 May 2012)
Handel & The Rival Queens, Lufthansa Baroque Festival
Lisa Milne (Francesca Cuzzoni)
Mhairi Lawson (Faustina Bordoni)
Christopher Benjamin (Narrator)
Early Opera Company
Conductor – Christian Curnyn
Megacle – Romina Basso
Licida – Delphine Galou
Aristea – Ruth Rosique
Argene – Luanda Siqueira
Clistene – Jeremy Ovenden
Aminta – Nicholas Spanos
Venice Baroque Opera
Conductor – Andrea Marcon
Two different concerts but both based around the idea of competition and rivalry.
Vocalympics in a sense and if you’ll pardon the simplistic play on words.
First up was a concert based on the legendary rivalry of Cuzzoni and Bordoni in Handel’s London. The idea of Handel’s “rival queens” is not new. There is a magnificent CD with Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott for example and I can’t believe that this is the first concert to emulate this moment in time. Indeed Handel himself wrote for both these prima donne in Alessandro as I have mentioned before.
Christian Curmyn and his exemplary Early Opera Company were joined by Mhairi Lawson and Lisa Milne, a late stand in for Rosemary Joshua who cancelled for personal reasons. And as narrator there was Christopher Benjamin. I was not wholly convinced by his contribution and while the anecdotes were amusing some seemed overlong.
However the quality of the singing and musicianship was incredibly high. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Mhairi Lawson and was slightly anxious as the last time her performance was marred by over indulgent vibrato. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised and enamoured of her performance as her voice had a bright and elegant sheen and she excelled in the virtuosity demands of the music, throwing out clean and accurate coloratura and embellishments throughout. The highlights were Brilla nell’ alma from Handel’s Alessandro and Son qual misera colomba from Hasse’s Cleofide. Lisa Milne valiantly and most ably stepped into the breach in place of Ms Joshua. Her richer and more resonant soprano was a perfect foil to Lawson’s and while her embellishments were not as sophisticated as her colleagues – perhaps as a result of being a late stand-in – hers was nevertheless a great performance with Che sento … Per pietà from Giulio Cesare and Porpora’s Miseri, sventurati, poveri affetti miei both displaying the polar opposites of her talent.
Yet – and quite rightly – the final duet proved the ultimate highlight of the concert as their voices melded together seamlessly.
Curmyn and his orchestra played with get poise and style. Tempos were easy and there was real bite in the strings and bar a few intonation problems in the Porpora, the oboists were suitably mellifluous. So all in all a very enjoyable evening.
And it was inevitable that the classical world would provide its own homage to the forthcoming Olympics. The Lufthansa Baroque Festival performed Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade and Andrea Marcon and his Venice Baroque Orchestra’s contribution was a pastiche opera – which they have also recorded – using Metastasio’s same libretto as its basis. This libretto was first used in 1733 by Caldara as well as composers as diverse as Galuppi and Leo on the one hand to Mysliveček, Piccinni and Cherubini from the other end of the century. All featured here alongside Vivaldi, Gassmann, Jommelli and Traetta as well as a new composer to me, Davide Perez.
While in principle a clever idea, it tripped over a few hurdles on the night. First and foremost the orchestra led by Marcon, was ragged. Entries were disconcertingly imprecise, tuning was often awry and Marcon’s own tempi were more often than not rushed and hence unsympathetic to the singers. It was this that in my opinion was the root cause of the lower than expected quakity of the playing from the orchestra. This marred some of the more beautiful arias that evening and in particular Jommelli’s Lo sequitai felice where the oboes and French horns simply struggled as did mezzo soprano Romina Basso herself.
That was a shame as Signora Basso was one of two singers who clearly deserved Olympian laurels on the evening. Hers is a velvety and sonorous mezzo soprano voice and once I had become used to her slightly eccentric mannerisms it was a joy to sit back and listen to her. From her opening aria, Superbo di me stesso she commanded the stage and audience throughout the evening. Similarly the second mezzo Delphine Galou displayed both great technique and musicianship – her Mentre dormi by Vivaldi being the highlight of the evening.
The other singers were of varying success. Luanda Siqueira had a bright soprano but would have benefitted from not singing into her score for the majority of the evening while Ruth Rosique, albeit a convincing actress, had a tendency to shrillness in her upper register as she snatched the higher notes. Of the two men, Jeremy Ovenden was a fluid if bland tenor and Nicholas Spanos had gentle timbred pleasantly reedy countertenor but lacked sufficient support to project the bottom notes of his range.
However the one nagging question for me was this – had Marcon simply chosen too many composers? Like a child when confronted by too much choice in the candy shop, had he over-indulged in his choices over too great a span of time? As a result, stylistically his Vivaldi sounded like his Hasse which sounded like his Jommelli which sounded like his Cherubini. Indeed Cherubini complete with harpsichord and lute – strange. Perhaps a narrower range of composers would have left a more stylistically coherent performance at the end of the evening.
Yet it was an interesting experiment. I have purchased the CD and happily admit that I listen to it a great deal mainly because Marcon adopts a more measured pace which allows the beauty of the individual arias stand out, and in particular the aforementioned Jommelli. But at the end of the day it remains more a compilation of charming arias than a coherent pastiche opera seria.