(David Bates and La Nuova Musica at St George’s Hanover Square, 20 April 2017)
Thanks to work travel, I haven’t been able to see all that much of the London Handel Festival this year, but I’d been looking forward to this event: a programme of duets performed by two of our most talented young singers, Louise Alder and Emilie Renard. These duets were chamber pieces written by Handel during his early period in Italy and the most famous of them was the cantata Amarilli vezzosa, composed in 1708. It was a rare chance to hear these early works: I only wish La Nuova Musica’s music director, David Bates, had kept a more sympathetic balance between orchestra and singers.
La Nuova Musica fielded a relatively small orchestra, with two violins, a viola, a viola da gamba, a theorbo and a double bass, along with the harpsichord played by Bates himself. Unfortunately, even this small band persistently swamped the singers, apparently due to a lack of awareness of the acoustics. This was unfortunate, especially because my friends and I had come primarily for Renard and she suffered most, with her lower register, from being lost among a hum of resonant strings. But enough grumbling. Things got started with an instrumental piece: the Overture to Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, composed in 1746 and thus postdating the vocal works in the programme by almost forty years. I don’t know the oratorio at all and was pleasantly surprised by the overture: its elegant opening and its second movement which began with the violins coming in, bare and unaccompanied, before being gradually joined by the rest of the strings. This will probably prompt spluttering in certain quarters, but there were points where it sounded rather like Vivaldi (I mean that as a compliment, however).
The first duet was Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi (HWV 197), composed in 1711, focusing on the struggle of the melancholic soul when it is in love. Baroque librettists certainly found their forte in tales of romantic suffering: here stars are invoked in their myriads, and the poor singer is impaled by countless arrows. Both ladies were, suitably, dressed in black: Renard pixie-like and vivacious as usual; Alder prettily coy, her red-blond hair spilling over ruches and taffeta. Their singing set the scene for the rest of the evening, with Renard’s mezzo serving as a kind of velvet base for Alder’s sparkling soprano.
It was in the first, eponymous section of this duet that I first began to worry about the voices being lost beneath the strings: not so much Alder, who could easily soar over the music, but Renard, who was being kept in a range very much at the lower end of any mezzo’s comfort zone. The best moments in the piece were when the voices could be heard a cappella, when their beauty came into its own. Much the same was true of the second section (‘Ma se l’alma sempre geme‘), where Renard again found herself constrained in territory that would surely have been more comfortable for a contralto, although I was taken by Alder’s haunting, soaring melody which rose above. The third section (‘Dunque annoda pur, ben mio’) closed with a duel of fluttering coloratura, lamenting the chains which bind the desires of the infatuated lover.
Next up was Sono liete, fortunate (HWV 194), from around 1710. This was a considerably more upbeat take on love, focusing not on the agonies of desire but on the joy of reciprocation and fulfilment. Despite the optimistic subject, it was another rather haunting melody and here the two voices worked beautifully together, with Alder occasionally soaring up into some lovely soprano flights. It was very pretty, an adjective I fear I’ll be using too much. Following on from this, we had the second instrumental piece of the evening; and this was rather funny – I’m terribly bad at recognising music without a programme, beyond knowing that I know it. Here I was driven half mad, because the piece was achingly familiar but I just couldn’t quite place it. When I found the programme later, I discovered it was (of course) the Sinfonia from Xerxes (like Judas Maccabeus, a considerably later piece than the duets).
We had a brief departure from Handel in the form of Steffani’s duet Placidissime catene, which David Bates explained had been ‘cleaned up’ by Handel some ten years after its composition. Refined and sophisticated, it was a delightful little piece in which Renard and Alder wove their voices gracefully together in protestations of love and loyalty: ‘mai mai non fugerò‘. There was another diversion into pure instrumental with the Sinfonia from Handel’s Orlando (the closest in date of the sinfonie so far, from 1719), and then we were on to the final duet before the interval. This was Langue, geme, sospira e si lagna (HMV 188), again dating from around 1711. Renard started off the duet, giving us a welcome chance to hear her voice a little more clearly. The first part was deliberately subdued and shy, growing stronger in the second section (‘Cangia i gemiti in baci‘). From the point of view of the libretto, this is one of the less satisfying Baroque duets, built around an overly sentimental bird metaphor: the anguishing fluttering of the dove who has lost his companion but who, on coming home to her, is finally content.
Post-interval, we had a single work: the chamber duet Amarilli vezzosa (from 1708, as I said at the beginning). This takes the form of a dialogue between the disdainful nymph Amaryllis and her unrequited shepherd lover Daliso, and it opened with a skirmish of violins before Renard (as Daliso) came forward with an injured recitative, emoting with sparks. This led into her first aria, Pietoso sguardo, which I thought was a little too deep for her (on the Hyperion recording of this piece, the role is sung by a contralto. Although Andreas Scholl has also had a go at it, the part must surely have been transposed up for him). Alder’s Amaryllis arrived on cue, looking suitably pouty and coy as she moved into her own first aria, Piacer che non si dona. This was effortlessly delivered with some fine acting as Amaryllis taunts and rebuffs her hapless lover (it clearly wasn’t all happiness and dancing in Arcadia).
Indeed, Amaryllis gets the next aria as well, after a squabble in recitative with the persistent Daliso. This time it’s a mini storm aria, Quel nocchiero che mira le sponde, which featured some impressive coloratura, but where Alder seemed to be pushing herself a bit too high for her own comfort zone. Not to be dissuaded, Daliso continues to appeal to her, and Renard’s next aria, È vanita d’un cor, allowed her at last to get up into her more natural range towards the end: a relief both for her, perhaps, and for me, as I’d been looking forward to hearing her lovely voice and was feeling rather sorry for her being marooned in the lower register. Amarilli remains unmoved and, indeed, Alder seemed very vexed in the final recitative (understandably, as I see that she is effectively telling Daliso where to go). The final duet – surprisingly, not a happy resolution – was performed with lots of delicious acting from both sides and it was clear that both Renard and Alder were having a great time playing off one another.
There were two encores, both of which I thought, rather guiltily, were better than the main programme: first the duet Io t’abbracio from Rodelinda and finally Caro, Bella from the final scene of Giulio Cesare. In both of these the voices blended rather than fought, and it sounded as though Renard was again being allowed up into her natural register. Some further thoughts: I do wish the singers had been further forward and the harpsichord further back. This might have helped with the swamping issues, although I think that as director Bates could also have dampened down the strings a little more, to allow the voices to shine. However, I have to stress that, although I couldn’t always hear the two singers, I was very pleased when I could. Alder truly is a dazzling, expressive soprano and would be brilliant in some of the more minx-like roles in the Baroque canon, while Renard’s voice is just as sweet and melodious as I remembered.
I was back at St George’s on Monday 24th for my first live Handel oratorio, Joseph and his Brethren, which features a very good cast and a tale of love and family values in Ancient Egypt. Watch this space…