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Posts Tagged ‘The English Concert’

Bewitched. Beguiled. Bedazzled.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Review – Alcina (Barbican Centre, Friday 10 October 2014)

Alcina – Joyce DiDonato
Ruggiero – Alice Coote
Morgana – Anna Christy
Bradamante – Christine Rice
Oronte – Ben Johnson
Oberto – Anna Devin
Melisso – Wojtek Gierlach

The English Concert

Harry Bicket (Director/Harpsichord)

Alcina is – for me – Handel’s greatest opera. Personally, it trumps Giulio Cesare in the magnificent invention of its music and outdoes the likes of Rodelinda and Orlando in its depiction of human nature.

And at the Barbican on Friday evening, this performance was the musical equivalent of a perfect storm. All the elements came together magically and deluged the entire hall in wave after wave of perfectly attuned, emotionally charged and dazzling brilliant musical performance.

Part of the Joyce DiDonato’s residency at the Barbican, it followed a magnificent recital drawn from her latest bel canto disc, Stella di Napoli. I never got round to writing up my thoughts on either disc or the concert itself but suffice it to say that both were magnificent.

Needless to say, as Alcina she was vocally superb – flawless even– and musically intuitive. And although there were no tomatoes this time, once again she was impressively attired to suit both character and occasion.

And each and every cast member – and the English Concert – were similarly impressive. In terms of the quality of the singing, their technique, their interpretation of Handel’s music including very tasteful embellishment and ornamentation, the commitment of everyone was stage was absolute.

While her Alcina on disc – recorded with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – is formidable on stage she brought a sense of humanity – of womanhood – to the role that is often missing in other performances. There was a heartrending frailty to Si, son quella! and a real sense of anguish in Ah! Il mio cor – possibly one of the finest arias Handel ever penned – that completely floored me. In Di mio cor, her Alcina was more than a woman in love, she conveyed a real sense of coquettishness, of almost innocent, true love. As a result, when this Alcina – rebuffed – turns to fury, it was a believable journey. This wasn’t so much a sorceress not getting her own way, but a woman scorned, seeking revenge and ultimately resigned to her fate. From her disbelief in Ombre pallide when the shades do not answer her summons, through her ‘righteous’ anger when she dismisses Ruggiero in Ma quando tornera to her almost final realization that she has lost him forever in Mi restamo le lagrime, was an emotional journey that was etched on the audiences’ minds. And I say almost, because in the trio, Non e amor, né gelosia – which I could have sworn was shorn – there was a palpable sense that should almost got her man back.

That she didn’t was evident from the moment Alice Coote stepped on stage. Like Ms DiDonato her total commitment not only to the role, but when singing Handel – and indeed in general – makes for an incredibly special performance. Her Ariodante at ENO will remain with me forever – not to mention her Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

To Ruggiero, she brought brashness – a youthful and naïve impetuosity that was palpable. But while Di te mi rido might have been suitably dismissive, with Mi lusinga il dolce affetto Coote’s Ruggiero began to doubt his own reality. In Mio bel tesoro Coote’s asides managed to sound slightly indecisive and the eloquence which she brought to the wonderful Verdi prati made it sound not so much an aria of adieu but one of regret. But there was no doubt that duty and true love had won out with Ms Coote’s spectacular performance – complete with braying horns – of Sta nell’ircana.

Following her impressive Cleopatra for ENO – one of the only things worth remembering from that dire production – Anna Christy brought crystalline accuracy, immaculate attention to detail and line, accomplished interpretation and more than a little wit to the role of Morgana. Of course everyone was on the edge of their seat for Tornami a vagheggiar – and Ms Christy did not disappoint, but for me it was Credete al mio dolore that set the seal on Ms Christy’s Handellian credentials. With support obbligato support from Joseph Crouch, Ms Christy not only negotiated this most difficult aria but imbued it with a real sense of pathos.

I can’t remember the last time I saw Christine Rice –ENO’s Partenope perhaps? – but it was a pleasure seeing her in the role of Bradamante. Her rich, velvet-toned mezzo was well matched to the role. Similarly, the Oberto of Anna Devin was superb. Chi m’insegna il caro padre was beautifully delivered with expert control of both the exposed line and embellished da capo and quite rightly, her bright soprano in Barbara! Io ben lo so brought cheers from the audience.

And both Ben Johnson as Oronte and Wojtek Gierlach as Melisso breathed new life into their arias – which compared to those of the other cast members – can often seem lackluster. Gierlach’s resonant bass made for a beautifully articulated Pensa a chi geme and Johnson sailed effortlessly through Un momento di contento.

The English Concert under the direction of Harry Bickett similarly excelled themselves. I have already mentioned the wonderful playing of Joseph Crouch and similar plaudits must be awarded to the wonderful playing of the leader, Nadja Zweiner in Ama, sospira, ma non t’offende with Ms Christy – soloist and singer in perfect synchronization.

By the end of the evening this was an Alcina to cherish and remember. And wonder why the Barbican doesn’t have its own label to capture magical moments like this.

Review – The Beauty of Baroque. Danielle de Niese, The English Concert/Harry Bickett

In Baroque, Classical Music, Danielle de Niese, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review on June 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm

A lesson learned – never listen to a new CD when in a bad mood. If I hadn’t revisited this album once again I would have missed what is, overall, a delightful, if not compelling, recital disc.

Danielle de Niese first came to public notice for her memorable performance as Cleopatra in McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare. Since then she has played other roles, notably Poppea as well as released a disc of Mozart arias. This new album focuses, as the title makes clear, on a mixed bag of music from the baroque era – namely Monteverdi, Purcell, Pergolesi, Bach and naturally, Handel. And in some of the numbers she is accompanied by the countertenor Andreas Scholl.

The disc opens with Purcell’s Come again: Sweet love doth now invite and What if I never speed? both of which de Niese delivers with charm, delicacy and attention to the texts. However from the start de Niese displays a noticeable breathiness, and while this may, in part, be due to too close a recording set up, personally I also believe it’s also to do with her technique which during the recital affects her ability to produce a smooth, legato line as required.

Next come two old Handel stalwarts, Ombrai mai fu from Serse. and Let The Bright Seraphim from Samson. While de Niese does justice to the first aria, singing it with great simplicity and musical intelligence, she fails to deliver, as I mentioned above, the requisite fluid, legato line, but instead chops the vocal line and – in some cases – seeming to snatch her breaths. It might not be a definitive performance but her rich, golden tone is hard to resist. In the second aria, with it’s accomplished trumpet obbligato, de Niese’s bright and agile soprano comes into it’s own. And thankfully she doesn’t succumb to the common practice of superfluous ornamentation on the return of the first section.

They hand Belinda … When I am laid from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a deceptively difficult aria. It requires an ability to spin a smooth, almost unbroken line and surprisingly de Niese delivers it to produce what I think is almost the strongest performance on the disc. Her diction is crystal clear and her delivery of the phrase ‘Remember me’ is particularly poignant, emphasised as it is by subtle use of vibrato.

From Acis and Galatea comes Heart, the seat of soft delight. With its gentle recorder accompaniment, De Niese achieves the requisite sense of pastoral rapture. Indeed it immediately recalled her wonderful performance as Acis at Covent Garden when it was then second part of a double bill after Sarah Connolly in Dido and Aeneas. If you get the chance snap up a copy of the DVD.

Monteverdi is represented by the wonderful duet Pur ti miro from L’incoronazione di Poppea and Quel sguardo sdegnosetto. Joined by Andreas Scholl in the duet from the closing act, this is the crowning highlight of the recital disc. Their two voices entwine and blend perfectly above the delicate accompaniment in this rapturously erotic music. The second Monteverdi number with it’s fleeting lute work doesn’t work so well, de Niese failing to match the dance-inspired infectiousness of the her accompanist.

Scholl returns for Io t’abbraccio from Handel’s Rodelinda. It’s clear that he provides a clear focus of inspiration and support for de Niese as this duet rivals the previous for the top slot. However it fails to ignite in the same way but is still well sung.

Guardian Angels, Oh, Protect Me from The Triumph of Time and Truth is the last Handel aria on the disc. The rather turgid, plodding accompaniment from Bickett doesn’t help de Niese as she tries to convey what is one of Handel’s finest arias. Again the breathiness returns here and interestingly in this aria alone does she seem to have almost imperceptible problems with intonation.

The first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater follows and again de Niese and Scholl entwine their voices to beautiful effect although the performance lacks any sense of light and shade – sung practically at one volume throughout.

It’s a shame that de Niese’s disc ends with JS Bach, as personally these two arias are the least convincing on the disc. I am not sure that her voice suits his music at all. Sich üben im Lieben from the wedding cantata Weichtet nur, betrübte Schatten is marred by the obbligato oboists intonation problems and generally feels laboured rather than loved. Schafe können sicker weiden fares slightly better although she is challenged by the sustained vocal line and therefore remains unconvincing in this specific repertoire.

Ultimately however De Niese’s breath control – which I believe can only be blamed in part on the close recording – somewhat marrs what is a good, if not compelling, recital disc. Throughout de Niese is ably, if somewhat unimaginatively supported by The English Concert conducted by Harry Bickett.

However it is worth it for de Niese’s and Scholl’s magical performance of Pur ti miro alone.

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