It’s two and a half years since Franco Fagioli last sang in London, and a year and a half since I saw him as the eponymous Eliogabalo at the Opéra de Paris. Would time have wrought any changes on that distinctive voice? I came to his latest concert full of curiosity. This time his programme was devoted to music by Vivaldi and Handel, with the accompaniment of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, led by Gianpiero Zanocco. Part of the evening’s success must be attributed to their deft and zestful performance of the music, but – as I said to Dehggial – they are the Venice Baroque Orchestra after all and, if they hadn’t been able to play Vivaldi properly, it would have been a sorry state of affairs. And Fagioli himself? A very pleasant surprise. He’s stripped away some of the affectations that have irritated me before; his voice seems stronger than ever; and he turned in a performance that left the Barbican’s rafters shaking with applause.
Things kicked off, as is traditional, with an instrumental piece: Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in G major (RV146), which opened with briskly robust strings and gave way to a central movement of plaintive melody, with a haunting and delicate refrain. I’m sure I’ve heard it somewhere before, as Vivaldi had a habit of reusing opera sinfonie for standalone symphonies, but I haven’t yet been able to place it. That gentle middle section was then elbowed out of the way by a further flurry of lively strings. I was very impressed by the blend of energy and precision in the way the violinists, in particular, played: I’d have further cause to admire them later on, especially Zanocco himself. But for now, with the audience warmed up, Fagioli took to the stage. His first piece was Vivaldi’s cantata Cessate, omani cessate (RV684), which I couldn’t help thinking was an odd choice.
Hear me out on this. Yes, the final section of Cessate is great fun, all fire and flair, and it gave Fagioli a chance to show off a bit; but in order to get there, we had two rather muted sections to wade through. I’m not denying that the music is pretty, but it didn’t strike me as the ideal calling card with which to open a concert: there were prolonged periods in the earlier sections of the cantata when Fagioli’s voice seemed to lack colour, to my ears, which I know perfectly well not to be the case. Fortunately it all came back in with a vengeance for that final section. I should note that the strings once again proved their skill during the cantata, with a little series of gentle touches which sounded like rain falling. (Ever since I read The Four Seasons, I’ve been obsessed with trying to figure out the scenes that Vivaldi is ‘painting’ in his instrumental music.) And I must also add that I had a very favourable impression of Fagioli’s voice. I fancy his diction is getting better and he was clearly trying to hold back on the vibrato a bit, even if his exuberance sometimes got the better of him. But it augured well for the rest.
While Fagioli went to recover, we had another Vivaldi symphony, another Sinfonia in G minor in fact (RV156). Once again I sat in awe of the strings, who danced between briskness and delicacy, and handled the diminuendos and crescendos with panache. I see in my notes that I once again heard ‘rain’ in the central movement, specifically ‘slow mournful rain falling in winter‘, which in retrospect strikes me as unwarrantedly precise, but this wintry downpour was soon brushed aside by the refreshed vigour of the final part. I remember how dull I found the Four Seasons, for example, when I was younger, without ever realising that so much depends on the vivacity of the orchestra performing it. The Venice Baroque Orchestra did their local composer proud.
Fagioli returned for two arias before the interval: first Mentre dormi from Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade, which I have only the vaguest recollection of hearing before. It’s a very beautiful aria, in which Licida asks nature to soothe his sleeping beloved: it has a gentle accompaniment, like the rippling of water or the rustling of a breeze. Throughout, Fagioli withstood the temptation to add too much ornamentation, which made those pieces that remained all that more striking, such as the melisma of fluttering notes on the word ‘idea‘. He moved straight into the next aria – no more going off between consecutive arias, thank goodness, which always struck me as nothing but a ploy to get more applause. And this, the final aria before the interval, and the last by Vivaldi, was a stunner: Nel profondo, cieco mondo from Orlando Furioso. I heard Cathy Bell sing this at Handel House and loved it then, and it was right up Fagioli’s street. As the hero Orlando condemns fate to the abyss, he threw himself into the fierce coloratura and concluded with what I’ve begun to call ‘a classic Fagioli cadenza’, sweeping from a dazzlingly high note to a low chest voice, all to demonstrate that three-octave range.
The second half was devoted to Handel and we began with Se potessero i sospir miei from Imeneo. This was another of the quieter pieces, an aria of love and loss sung by Tirinto as he mourns the absent Rosmene, and it was very pretty. Fagioli drew out the word ‘sciogliere‘ into a lovely, shimmering melisma and, in the final repetition of the A section, he threw in a gorgeous messa di voce on the final word ‘cor‘, almost unaccompanied. Earlier, in the B section, there had been a similar moment of unadorned song, as the orchestra gently faded away to let Fagioli’s voice stand alone. He followed this up with Sento brillar nel sen from Il pastor fido, which I hadn’t heard before and which, initially, didn’t grab me by the throat. It was certainly cheerful, and Fagioli was getting into some mock-conducting, but I didn’t think it had quite as much impact as his other arias, for all its flash (and I thought his diction had slipped). Then we got to the end, which featured a completely crazy cadenza that brought a stupid grin to my face. Judging by the rapturous applause afterwards, I wasn’t the only one either.
There followed the Sinfonia from Handel’s Giustino, which was elegantly paced and slightly haunting, rounded off with a crisp and jaunty movement to finish. I wish I could write more about it, but I got distracted halfway through when I realised that the leader, Zanocco, had a modern violin bow while some of his colleagues had Baroque bows, and I ended up trying to count the ratio (I didn’t succeed). Fortunately I got a grip on myself in time for the next aria: the big one, Scherza infida from Ariodante. This is an aria that Fagioli has sung a lot; it’s one he always does extremely well; and it always seems to provoke a powerful emotional reaction in him. As ever, it was a raw and haunting performance, sung – as was virtually everything else – with scant reference to the music; and, at the end, as the final notes died away, Fagioli stood with head hanging: a man who’d wrung himself dry. Luckily he had a bit of time to recover, because we had a final instrumental piece: Geminiani’s La folia. I’ve heard this before, but the Venice Baroque Orchestra made it sound particularly grand and majestic, and it offered some wonderful solos for Zanocco, who played with such fearsome energy that I began to worry for the safety of his bow. It really is a pretty fantastic piece of music and allowed the musicians to go out on a high before the final aria of the programme.
This, fittingly, was Dopo notte, also from Ariodante and another of Fagioli’s favourites. He always really seems to enjoy this one, which he often pairs with Scherza infida, and it was pretty spectacular. Dehggial will no doubt have firm opinions on it, as it’s one of ‘her’ arias, but I thought it was a glorious way to conclude… except, of course, that this wasn’t the end. It’s never the end after the final aria, so more fool those who leap up from their seats to go as soon as the singer has taken a bow. Now, I’d been grumbling to my companions beforehand that Fagioli was daring to do half a programme on Handel and wasn’t doing anything from Xerxes, which he will be singing (at the Barbican again) in the autumn. My griping was now put firmly in my place, as I was given two wonderful encores: first up, Crude furie, with all the flamboyance that implies and a bonus flamenco stamp at the end (even if it didn’t quite knock Yuriy Mynenko’s version off my top spot); and then Ombra mai fu. This last was absolutely gorgeous. It’s a very difficult aria, despite its apparent simplicity, and it takes a lot of skill to carry it off. I’ve heard very, very few good versions. But Fagioli sang it with complete control and such elegant ease that has made me very, very excited about the Xerxes in the autumn.
A very good evening, therefore. I found myself enjoying the gentler arias more than I’d expected to, but I can never resist a bit of flash and sparkle, and that was there in abundance too. I’m pleased that Fagioli has toned down some of his grandstanding and made more of an effort with his diction, even if there’s still a way to go. And he can’t fail to be pleased with his reception at the Barbican, which was extremely enthusiastic. Can’t wait to see how he copes with my favourite brat-prince…