As the city shivered in winter’s grip on Monday evening, those of us at the Wigmore Hall could imagine ourselves among the campi and canals of 17th-century Venice. The brilliant French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were back for another London concert under the baton of their director Christophe Rousset. You may remember that I thoroughly enjoyed their recital with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Anders Dahlin at St John’s Smith Square last year. This concert was very similar in spirit, including three of the same pieces, but it rang the changes by swapping the tenors for two talented sopranos: the Dutch Judith van Wanroij and the Belgian Jodie Davos. Through the music of Rossi, Cavalli and maestro Monteverdi himself, they carried us deep into timeless tales of fateful passion, all-consuming love and grand anguish.
We kicked off with two madrigals which also opened the Smith Square concert: Chiome d’oro and O come sei gentile, both from Monteverdi’s Settimo libro (1619). These are gorgeous pieces, in which well-matched voices can weave a fluttering tapestry of sound. Needless to say, van Wanroij and Devos complemented each other wonderfully, with van Wanroij’s lower, warmer tones offering a foundation for Devos’ clear and resonant voice. Did I enjoy them more or less than the same madrigals sung by Gonzalez Toro and Dahlin? It’s hard to say. I feel that the men offered a more dramatically emotive performance, but the women were technically dazzling. I noticed this especially in O come sei gentile, where the voices swell and dip, braiding in and out of one another, changing mood on the turn of a breath. Exultant love fades into melancholy for the poor, tormented lover. And the feast concluded with a third offering from the Settimo libro, Ohimè, dov’é il mio ben?, in which an abandoned lover wonders what has become of her sweetheart. It’s all very plaintive and doesn’t exactly end on a high, as the music shimmers downward in echo of the lover’s desperation: ‘Alas, cruel destiny, you make me minister of my own death‘.
Like the concert at Smith Square, this recital then moved into a mixture of instrumental pieces and scenes from operas. The first sonata was the same as that I heard last year: Dario Castello’s second sonata from his Primo Libro de Sonate Concertante in Stilo Moderno (1621). I wrote a little about this last time round and have nothing much to add this time, except to reiterate the cheeriness of the joyful sections, and to note how the violins sometimes blended and sometimes battled for dominance. I confess I was more excited about what was coming up next. We were being treated to a taste of Poppea.
Three scenes were knitted together, beginning with the first time that we see Nerone and Poppea. Having spent the night together in a heady adulterous frenzy, they bid each other farewell in a scene which throbs with languid sensuality. The singers subtly took on their roles: Devos, as Poppea, was by turn beguiling and demanding, while van Wanroij adopted a regal condescension, her voice tending towards its darker shades. Funnily enough, it’s only now that I actually listened to the words and saw how the librettist, Giovanni Francesco Busenello, alluded to Nerone’s self-identification with the sun-god Apollo. Poppea plays with his ego, drawing out the flatteries: ‘L’incarnato mio sole, La mia palpabil luce‘ (‘My sun incarnate, my palpable light’). And I appreciated the ‘Tornerai?’ exchange all over again, because the more I hear it the more I can see how Monteverdi managed to express such melting sensuality with such simplicity.
We then skipped to the end of the opera, where two scenes unfold one after another. Having achieved her ambition to become empress, Poppea lavishes all her adoration on her new husband. In a charming duet, the two profess the mingling of their spirits: ‘Because of you, my love, my heart no longer beats in my breast’ … ‘In you I shall seek myself; In you I shall find myself, And I shall lose myself again … I want to be lost in you for ever.’ They knew their passions, those Venetians. Devos and van Wanroij performed this duet with great elegance, their voices blending, but the simple truth is that it’s hard to concentrate on this duet with Pur ti miro looming on the horizon like a glittering pleasure barge. This is always the real test, but I’m pleased to report that everyone passed with flying colours here. Both Devos and van Wanroij pulled off very nice messe di voci during the smouldering opening section (‘I gaze upon you, I take delight in you, I hold you close, I embrace you…’), before the pace picked up for the midsection in a chaotic tumble of desire, barely steadied by the final da capo. Very fine.
The second half of the recital was rather more earnest, and I’m afraid I know the music less well, so this’ll be brief (you may be glad of that). We began with music from Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo, which I saw at the Sam Wanamaker some years ago and loved; but it was only now that I concentrated properly on the music itself. First up, van Wanroij’s Orfeo and Devos’s Euridice bickered sweetly about who loved the other better, in A che tanto spavento, a duet allowing for further mellifluous blending of voices. If I’m allowed one small criticism, there were a few points where van Wanroij’s diction seemed to be very slightly off, but it hardly seems fair to bring that up as I’ve heard far worse offenders in my time. The duet gave way to a solo for Euricide, Che può far Citherea. Here the nymph, confident of Cupid’s protection, ignores warnings of Venus’s wrath. ‘Let wrathful fate, armed with lightning bolts in the battlefields of the air, threaten as it may: I am not afraid’. Accompanied by just the harpsichord and cello, Devos sang passionately, defiantly and clearly, standing up against the gods.
Of course, Euridice would have done well to worry about the gods’ malevolence – or at least to watch where she was walking. After she’s killed by a snake bite, Orfeo descends into Hades to rescue her. As they return towards the world above, they sing another duet: Amor mercè. I did remember this from the Wanamaker production, but was struck anew by how musically elegant Rossi is. I really need to listen to more of his music. The final piece of his that we heard, alas, was a rather forlorn one: Orfeo has looked round, lost his love, and laments his unhappy fate in Lasciate Averno. This was an aria for van Wanroij, who drew out all the poet’s pain, accessorised with mournful violins.
At the end of this condensed race of emotions, it was almost a relief to have another instrumental piece – this time the Sonata sesta by Johann Rosenmüller. Rosenmüller is an interesting character because, according to the programme, he was almost appointed Cantor of St Thomas’s in Leipzig – the job that Bach was later given. However, just before his appointment, it turned out that Rosenmüller was interested in schoolboys beyond the fact of merely teaching them. He was imprisoned, but managed to escape and ran away to Venice; oddly enough he ended up composing for the Ospedale della Pietà. Perhaps he wasn’t so much of a danger to schoolgirls. Difficult as it is to put aside his personal life, I have to say that I rather enjoyed his sonata, which alternated between adagios and cheerful, lightly-handled allegros played with vigour on the violins.
And we needed those allegros, because we had two laments coming up next, both from Cavalli’s Didone: first that of Cassandra, sung by Devos, and then that of Didone herself, performed by van Wanroij. I feel like a bit of an ignoramus saying this, but I found both arias a little grim. Of course they’re meant to be sobering, but the first in particular seemed to be entirely devoid of musical colour. At least Van Wanroij’s Didone had a bit of steel about her as she contemplated the sword with which she was about to die. But I’m a simple creature: I like happy endings, and I was relieved when the gloominess was dispelled with a final flush of naughtiness, courtesy of Valletto’s and Damigella’s duet from Poppea. Everything about this duet is just delicious, from the scampering introduction to the wide-eyed lasciviousness of little Valletto (sung here by van Wanroij, who was clearly thoroughly enjoying herself).
I would have been entirely happy if things had ended there, but of course we were treated to an encore: not a light-hearted one, but something I was very happy to hear again. It was from Cavalli’s Hipermestra: the duet Cosi ferite d’amoroso strale (otherwise known as the ‘echo duet’). I liked this very much at Glyndebourne and was intrigued that Les Talens Lyriques chose it – perhaps they’re planning a recording? I’m still smarting that Glyndebourne didn’t produce a DVD of their production.
To conclude, something I really liked about the evening was the restraint shown by the musicians. The joy of Monteverdi’s madrigals and, indeed, of music from this period more generally, is that they celebrate the voice and not the ‘wall of sound’ orchestral effect. The singer’s words are offered up as if on a silver platter, burnished ever so slightly by the continuo of harpsichord and cello, but with nothing else to distract from their performance. Les Talens Lyriques followed this tradition assiduously. They were a small band in any case, with Rousset himself providing the harpsichord continuo and only three other musicians: Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Gabriel Grosbard on violin and Emmanuel Jacques on the cello. During the vocal pieces, the violins were kept almost in reserve and, when they did emerge, you could tell that it was a significant moment: a proto-aria, or a flash of some great and noble emotion.
A lovely night, full of poise and passion. Dehggial was also present and you can read her thoughts on it here (pretty similar to mine, I’m relieved to see!).