(Handel House, 8 October 2015)
Having been delighted by Cathy Bell‘s Venti turbini the other week, I’d really been looking forward to this recital at Handel House focused on Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic. The programme was split equally between Handel (Orlando and Alcina) and Vivaldi (Orlando furioso), and Bell was accompanied by two other members of last year’s Handel House Talent group: Marie van Rhijn on harpsichord, and Caoimhe de Paor joining them on recorder for a formidably complicated piece of Vivaldi, on which more later. Fittingly, given its source, it was a recital that offered rage and romance in equal measure.
Love, in the universal opinion of wise men, is nothing but madness…
What clearer sign of lunacy than to lose your own self through pining
for another? … It is like a great forest into which those who venture
must perforce lose their way.
Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, Canto 24
Vivaldi got us underway with Orlando’s aria Nel profondo, in which he declares that even the cruellest fortune can’t dent his love for Angelica. Bell took the chance to show off her beautiful, warm low notes right from the start, as well as making the most of the snappy passages of coloratura and fluid runs up and down the scales; but the aria was also notable for its terrifically jaunty opening. On my CD of the opera, this accompaniment seems to be played by the entire string section, but here van Rhijn gallantly took it on alone: no mean feat, and a foretaste of the impressive standard of her playing throughout.
We were still fizzing from that when the recital segued into something considerably gentler: Verdi allori from Handel’s Orlando. Here Angelica’s (reciprocated) lover Medoro asks the trees in their favourite grove to protect their names carved into the bark. Bell switched mood accordingly, the rich undertones of her voice overlaid by a lighter, more romantic touch, and it was an immediate favourite. I particularly liked the way that the harpsichord mirrored the voice in the B section, each weaving in and out of one another. If it felt slightly, nigglingly familiar, the reason became clear towards the end of the recital when Bell turned to Verdi prati, and it transpired that Handel was sometimes very influenced by himself.
But it was high time for madness, and that came courtesy of Orlando again (who else?), in an extended and flamboyant section from Handel, Ah! Stigie larve. Here the unfortunate knight tumbles through a terrifying series of visions, seeing Hell, Cerberus and his beloved Angelica clasped in Medoro’s arms. The atmosphere changes pretty rapidly throughout, from the breathless description of Pluto’s kingdom to Orlando’s mournful glimpse of Angelica and, then, to a lyrical section in which he begs the vision not to weep. But that selfless attitude is swiftly replaced by a more vindictive spirit – yes, he does want her to weep – at which Bell and van Rhijn swept up the tempo once more. It felt like a mini scene and, for me, the most enjoyable aspect was to see Bell acting her way through it: wide-eyed as she descended into hell, and moving from compassion to anger as her Orlando encountered his faithless beloved. I’ve said it before, but it makes such a difference when a singer acts even in a concert setting, and Bell was completely engaged in every change of emotion.
Next we headed back to Vivaldi, this time for a couple of Alcina’s arias. Bell broke off before singing to offer heartfelt thanks to Vivaldi for writing Alcina as a mezzo and allowing her, for once, to sing the role of ‘a woman who isn’t even pretending to be a man’. That made me smile: such, it seems, is the plight of the Baroque mezzo. But Alcina is definitely all woman and Alza in quegl’ occhi, with which we began, makes full use of her sorceress’s charm. Her aria, in which she vacillates between hopeful and fearful admiration, is as light and sweet as Chantilly cream, and Bell drew out all the flirtatious sparkle of the A section. With its bubbling stream of melisma, the da capo was particularly impressive to listen to, and I actually think – despite my well-known taste for mad storm arias and such – that this was my favourite aria of the recital. It had flounce and glamour, but also real technical skill. The mood became a little more reflective in the following piece, Così potessi anch’ io, in which Alcina wistfully thinks of the love between Medoro and Angelica: a kind of love that she is unlikely ever to have. It was gentle and sorrowful – a return to the more lyrical romance of Verdi allori – but despite its undoubted elegance, it was slightly overshadowed for me by the previous aria.
And the recital closed with the other famous couple from the Orlando story: the knight Ruggiero (temporarily bewitched by Alcina‘s enchantments) and his long-suffering beloved Bradamante. First up was Ruggiero as interpreted by Vivaldi, in the love aria Sol da te, mio dolce amore. The singing was lovely of course, but the most striking thing about this piece was Caoimhe de Paor’s dexterous performance on the recorder, adapting a challenging solo for transverse flute. It sounded marvellous: a rippling, fluttering sequence of notes, almost impossibly fast. Speed and flair were also the order of the day in the next aria, Bradamante’s È gelosia, although in this case the drama came from the harpsichord. Bell herself embodied the indignant warrior with more sweeping coloratura, spiralling up and down the scales. It was very well done, although my flighty attention was immediately distracted by the final aria, Verdi prati.
This was captivating – Ruggiero elbowing out Bradamante, I’m afraid. The pace slowed again and Bell sang with fine control and, more importantly, a real sense of regret and sorrow. Character again came to the fore, which had been true throughout the recital: her Ruggiero was tormented by nostalgia for what he couldn’t save, even as he celebrated the end of Alcina’s enchantments. Everyone in the room was so caught up in the moment that the applause for that last aria took just a little longer than the others.
Well, I say ‘last’ aria… it wasn’t really the last, because we had an encore: Bell playfully said that she felt a recital based around ‘rage’ should finish with a bit of a bang. And that bang came courtesy of Bradamante, with Vorrei vendicarmi. Wow. The frenetic, tightly packed notes of the A section were very well set off by the dignified B section, giving us just enough time to catch our breaths before – here we go again – the pace went firing off once more. It was dizzying, ambitious and really, really fun to listen to. And so, with fire, flash and vigour the recital came to a very appropriate end (and I battled the urge to beg for an encore of the encore).
It was a very enjoyable evening: a strong concept, wonderfully performed and well introduced throughout by Bell. She made an interesting suggestion that Orlando furioso was such a rich source for opera precisely because its episodic structure offered the balance of alternating emotions which lyricists and composers needed to maintain in their sequences of arias. Hearing more of her singing has confirmed my admiration for her voice and it’ll be great to see her in some full operas, which is surely only a matter of time. Her low mezzo is a relatively unusual and arresting kind of voice (though I understand it presents some problems in the current market: her natural habitat would be the male roles which are increasingly being given to countertenors. Personally I have mixed feelings about that; but even I would much rather hear a good mezzo than a mediocre countertenor). And her expressiveness was a real strong point: she didn’t just sing, but she also acted each part with relish and, if she can do that in a concert context, it should be very engaging to watch her in a staged production one day.
Let’s hope. Marie van Rhijn once again impressed me with the sheer dynamism and intensity of her playing and, though I only had a quick taste of Caiomhe de Paor’s recorder-playing, I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing more. All in all, three names to definitely watch out for.