(Wigmore Hall, Academia Montis Regalis with Alessandro De Marchi, 21 September 2014)
If you have the misfortune to follow me on Twitter, you’ll be aware that I have signally failed to remain grown-up and detached about the prospect of attending my first concert of Baroque music. Forgive me. I can only beg the indulgence due to the zealous new convert, while pointing to my almost complete immersion in the Baroque for the last six weeks. And surely I can’t be blamed for my excitement, because I was kicking off my career as a barocchista with a concert by none other than the high priest of showmanship and bravura ornamentation, the inimitable Franco Fagioli.
As ever, I must note that if you want an educated critique of the programme selection and the way each aria was performed – in short, if you want any coherent discussion of the music – I’m afraid this isn’t the place to come. I’m just an amateur, trying very clumsily to describe what I hear without any expert operatic vocabulary or knowledge, but redeemed by a good dose of enthusiasm. I’d listened to teaser tracks of two arias from Fagioli’s new Porpora album on the internet, but beyond that I hadn’t heard any of them before; and so the evening felt like wandering through a thrilling terra incognita, full of marvels. Nevertheless, though far from qualified to write an actual review of the concert, I feel compelled to share my own sense of sheer delight at simply being there. This was an important milestone in my own personal Baroque stravaganza. A month and a half after I discovered Artaserse and caught the Baroque bug – a period I’ve spent exploring the history and variety of this remarkable niche of classical music – the music itself finally blossomed into vibrant, captivating and charismatic life.
Fagioli’s new album focuses on music from the operas of Nicola Porpora (1686-1768), who started his career as a music teacher and composer in the conservatori of Naples. After a peripatetic career in Italy, Porpora moved to London in 1729 and shortly afterwards became the director of the Opera of the Nobility, a theatre company designed to rival that of the Royal Academy of Music (directed by Handel). Being an impresario in 18th-century London was no easy task, but Porpora had one trump card: his most brilliant student, Farinelli, who came to England in the 1730s. Thus, it’s no small matter to make your solo UK debut singing the arias of Porpora. On the contrary, you’re courting the weight of history; quite apart from the fact that playing your first solo gig in London must be pretty nerve-racking under any circumstances; and doing so in the Victorian splendour of the Wigmore Hall must add another layer of pressure.
But, if Fagioli was nervous when he stepped on stage on Sunday night – to an enthusiastic reception before he even sang a note – there was no sign of it. He was perhaps a little restrained at the beginning, but it swiftly became evident that he was going to be appreciated. On a couple of his entrances there were cries of ‘bravo!’ before he’d even opened his mouth, and by the second half he was smiling more and more. His exuberance found expression in some deliciously playful ornamentation; but more on that later.
The programme was perfectly balanced between vocal and instrumental pieces: the former all Porpora; the latter all Vivaldi. I tried to write notes as the concert progressed, but I fear they’re too bubbly to be of much use in retrospect. We opened with Vivaldi’s Concerto in G for strings and continuo, which was fresh, lively and cheerful: the perfect way to set the scene. From there we progressed into the first aria (and the indescribable sensation of seeing a favourite singer stride off the album cover and onto the stage in the flesh for the first time). This was Porpora’s Se tu reggi al volo (Ezio, 1728),which was one of Fagioli’s speciality pieces: a bravura aria full of fizzing energy, in which ornament was piled upon ornament. From there we moved into Vorrei spiegar l’affanno (Semiramide riconosciuta, 1729), an aria of tremulously melting beauty with a spirited dash in the middle, and a gorgeously controlled section at the end where Fagioli’s voice swelled and softened like the sea.
Then there was a break with Vivaldi’s Concerto in F for oboe, strings and continuo, which was again lively with a slightly gentler central movement. The flourishes of the oboe in this piece made me think about comparisons with the singing voice, and how both are employed in Baroque music: ultimately both voice and oboe are instruments, and both can be used in very similar ways to give a tripping series of notes. When Fagioli came back on stage, he performed the exquisite Torbido intorno al core (Meride e Selinunte, 1727), a beautiful aria with an infinitely slow rising and falling motif that was just heavenly. This was followed by the gleeful melodrama of the bravura Già si desta la tempesta (Didone abbandonata, 1725). Fagioli spent the introductory notes anxiously scanning the vaults of the Wigmore Hall as if the storm was about to break through at any moment. By this point he must have realised that the natives were friendly, and he began to play with us a little, teasing us, plunging into baritone notes and sweeping up to soprano with mischievously studied nonchalance. The crowd went wild, of course. I was gloriously overcome and, on spilling out into the foyer for the interval, was capable only of finding my new fagiolisti friends (see below) and dissolving into a flood of exuberant superlatives.
The second half opened with more Porpora: first of all the aria Distillatevi o cieli (Il verbo in carne, 1748), a rather slow and elegant piece full of hopefulness, which was rather overshadowed for me by its successor: the aria Con alma intrepida (Meride e Selinunte, 1727). This was another deliciously crazy aria: I must confess that I have a weakness for his bravura pieces. Fagioli had obviously decided that we were a good crowd and was allowing himself to enjoy the show, throwing in as much ornamentation as he could fit in, hardly able to suppress an infectious smile. It was wonderful. My notes for this aria were perfectly unhelpful: all I have is a spidery biro scrawl across the page: ‘how does he do it?!!!’. Having wound everyone up into a frenzy of appreciation, he once again departed, leaving us to the calming strains of Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in G. This was most memorable for me for its middle section, which involved some lovely pizzicato playing of the violins, one with the bow and one plucked by the fingers: a delicate and lovely piece that I really enjoyed. The peril of talking about this concert is that one tends to enthuse about Fagioli and forget the Academia Montis Regalis, under the direction of Alessandro De Marchi, who did such a fabulous job. I have to single out Olivia Centurioni on the violin, who particularly caught my attention. The choice of programme allowed all of them to shine alongside Fagioli, thanks to the instrumental pieces used to break up his arias.
Next up was Porpora’s Non lasciar chi t’ama tanto (Vulcano, circa 1720), a gorgeous love song which managed to be both heartfelt and hopeful, with a splendid messa di voce at the end. That gave me courage to hope that perhaps Fagioli might be saving up something rather special for us. I had to wait with baited breath throughout Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in C minor – a fine piece, with some ferociously fast fingering from the cellist, but I couldn’t help feeling that in the ensemble sections she was rather drowned out by the cheerful frenzy of the violins. And then it was the closing aria: Spesso di nubi cinto (Carlo il Calvo, 1738). When this started, I thought it was a slightly surprising choice for the closing piece. Yes, it was a bravura aria, but at first it didn’t seem to have the swaggering quality that I’d been hoping for.
But then… oh, then! It turned into a rare showpiece. At the end, with each repetition already given extra embroidery, the band held off and Fagioli did what he does best: simply cast off the shackles and unleashed himself on a sparkling cadenza. There followed an extended series of staggeringly brilliant scales, his voice tripping up and down the octaves, from several notes spent flirting with the caverns of the baritone level, then dancing up through his usual range to the dazzlingly pure notes of the empyrean. The audience was rapt: every nerve in the place seemed to be stretched taut with anticipation. I wanted him to carry on for ever.
Everyone had told me that Fagioli is one of the best live performers in the field and it’s certainly true that he is a brilliant showman: an actor, not just a singer. He’s great on CD, of course, but he seems to really relish performing to an audience. He feeds off the energy of the crowd and gives it back in spades: this isn’t a man simply singing beautiful music: it’s a man throwing himself into every single aria, living every emotion. At the beginning of each piece he’d visibly ready himself, getting in the appropriate mood: head thrown back, smiling, or bowed head, eyes hooded, combative or gentle or swaggering as necessary.
He is so thrilling to watch precisely because he is such a performer. You never quite know what’s going to happen: Sunday’s performance offered us that breathtaking cadenza, and an unexpectedly spontaneous flash of flamenco. (Performing a similar programme at Ambronay in France a week ago, he gave the audience a similarly dazzling treat in the form of a Scherza, infida of unsurpassed beauty. It almost immediately electrified the internet and has swiftly become a must-see. If you haven’t watched it yet, treat yourself. And marvel at how he lives this music.) Sunday’s encores were, perhaps predictably, Alto Giove and Nell’attendere il mio bene, both from Porpora’s Polifemo. The former is one of the most famous countertenor arias and everyone has done it, but Fagioli’s rendition was sumptuously beautiful. His voice seemed to caress the tune, using it as a guide without being slavishly restricted by it: confident, feather-light and full of yearning.
My expectations had been running high, not least because I also had the chance to meet some of the lovely people with whom I’ve been discussing this music on Twitter. It is surely no spoiler to say that the evening was an unqualified success. My fellow fagiolisti from Twitter were delightful, friendly and more than ready to share their knowledge with an eager newcomer: we spent a wonderful hour having dinner beforehand, while they discussed the operas they’d seen and I sat and marvelled, wide-eyed. And of course the concert itself couldn’t have been more splendid. The Wigmore Hall proudly reported on Monday afternoon that it ‘set Twitter ablaze’. The enthusiasm was so vocal that, according to one review posted early on Monday morning, Wigmore Hall regulars had commented (indulgently) that ‘it sounded like the house was rocking with groupies’. But that just goes to show what an engaged and lively group of people have become hooked on Baroque music in recent years. The people I’ve met have all been in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, much the same age as the singers themselves. The Baroque revival scene may be in its infancy, but it has the potential and the passion to develop in thoroughly exciting directions.
Unfortunately for those of us in London, the Baroque scene in the UK is still some distance behind that in other European countries. I could only listen in envy as my new friends discussed the wealth of concerts they’d seen in Germany and France. However, Sunday proved that we English are as willing as anyone to be swept up in rapturous acclaim, and the applause and yells of ‘bravo’ (not only after the main programme but also each of the two encores) rebounded deafeningly off the vaulted roof of the Hall. The one bittersweet aspect of the evening was that there weren’t enough CDs: within a few minutes, stocks were exhausted and even those of us pretty near the front of the queue were left disappointed. However, it would have taken far more than that to dampen our spirits. (If you want a taste of the atmosphere, just watch this video of the curtain calls: no singing, I’m afraid, just one dazzled audience and one very happy singer). I just hope the all-too-evident enthusiasm will encourage Fagioli and his fellow countertenors to remember us in the UK when planning their schedules for future tours. It was an intoxicating night: hopefully the first of many. What a triumph!
One God, one Fagioli!*
*Someone got there before me with this on Twitter, but I’d been cherishing this phrase all the way home on the Tube and I refuse to have the opportunity to use it snatched away!