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.
(Opéra Royal de Versailles, 30 May 2018)
When business took me to Versailles this week, I just happened to arrive on the first night of the Opéra Royal’s new production of Lully’s Phaéton. As you know, French Baroque opera is still something of a terra incognita for me, so I decided to see if there were tickets available, and discovered a last-minute return. It would’ve been rude not to. That evening, perched in a velvet-lined box, with gold and glittering crystal overhead, I settled in for an epic four-hour tale of ambition, love and hubris. It was a steep learning curve, with marked differences from the Italian operas that I know and love, but I can’t think of a better place to experience the Sun King’s composer for the first time, and the production was blessed with a terrific performance in the title role by Mathias Vidal. So join me, as I bumble my way through this first extended encounter with Monsieur Lully…
(Brook Street Band at St George’s Hanover Square, 6 April 2018)
Some of you may remember that I saw Thomas Arne’s pastoral comedy The Judgement of Paris two summers ago, in the beautiful rectory garden at Bampton. This production for the London Handel Festival may have lacked the bucolic surroundings, but it made up for it in the quality of the cast, which marshalled a real dream team of young British singers. Yet the evening had a surprise in store: a bit of audience interaction, which pitted Arne directly against Handel and treated us to some highlights from the older composer’s Semele. Both The Judgement of Paris and Semele were based on libretti by William Congreve, whose sprightly, slightly rakish poetry still raises smiles.
(Opera Settecento at St George’s Hanover Square, 24 March 2018)
Opera Settecento’s contribution to this year’s London Handel Festival was a concert performance of this early work based on the bestselling 16th-century chivalric romance Amadis of Gaul. Despite his name, this parfait knight was in fact half-English (the illegitimate fruit of a union between the King of Gaul and an English princess) and was brought up in Scotland. He kept up tradition by conceiving a great amour for Oriana, heiress to the English throne (charmingly described in the libretto as ‘daughter of the King of the Fortunate Islands’). And it’s this element of the story, rather than the knightly escapades, monsters and other adventures, that Handel is concerned with here. In fact, the whole thing takes place within the bounds of an enchanted palace and its gardens. That was the excuse for some truly staggering stage effects in the original production and, although we didn’t have those at St George’s the other night, we did still get to enjoy the beautiful music; not to mention some excellent performances.
(London Handel Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square, 19 March 2018)
This year’s London Handel Festival kicked off with this pastoral drama from 1718 which, described in the programme as ‘Handel’s most perfect work’, had a lot to live up to. It was commissioned by the Earl of Carnarvon, who was also the patron of Handel’s Chandos Anthems and his Esther, and its genesis as a pastoral masque is reflected in its brevity – a mere ninety minutes – and its plot stuffed with nymphs, shepherdess and happy rustics. I’m slightly allergic to pastoral operas, which I can’t take seriously, but I have to admit that the music in Acis and Galatea is beautiful – no matter how many times the English libretto made me wince. Charmingly staged in St John’s Smith Square, and performed by a strong young cast, this was a very Baroque evening out.
This portrait isn’t immediately arresting, it’s true. The sitter, for all her charm, is no great beauty and she’s dressed with tasteful understatement. Her chief attraction is that pair of searching, intelligent black eyes. But, if you’d lived in the late 18th century, you’d have instantly recognised her as one of the most popular singers of the age. She made her debut at the age of seven and became the toast of opera houses throughout Italy, before being invited to Vienna by the Emperor himself. Here she became a favourite of Mozart and Salieri, both of whom composed music for her. She created the role of the Countess in Salieri’s School of Jealousy and was Mozart’s first Susanna in Figaro. And, amazingly, she was a Londoner: born and bred in Marylebone. On the eve of International Women’s Day, Bampton Classical Opera turned the spotlight firmly onto Anna Selina Storace (1765-1817), known as ‘Nancy’, focusing on music written especially for her.
(Opéra Royal de Versailles, 9 March 2018)
The dauntless Argonauts came to the shores of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, but their heroism has been put on hold. For the last year they’ve been kept kicking their heels while their leader, Jason, diverts himself with a mysterious woman. He might be thoroughly enjoying himself but, as his fellow Argonaut Hercules tells him, it’s time to move on. But Jason’s romantic adventures prove harder to shake off than he anticipates, when it transpires that his secret lover is none other than Medea, Queen of Colchis. To make matters worse, his fiancee Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos, has grown tired of waiting for him and is coming to fetch him home. Did I mention that Jason has also given each woman twin sons? Amidst the glitz and glitter of Versailles’s Opéra Royal, everything was about to hit the fan in a very, very Baroque fashion.
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.
I’ve seen a lot of very silly operas in my time, but Handel’s Orlando really does take the biscuit. Based loosely on Canto 23 of Ariosto’s Renaissance romance, Orlando Furioso, it tells the story of Charlemagne’s great paladin, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for the pulchritudinous princess Angelica. Let’s be glad that I’m not judging it solely on the libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, which features paper-thin characterisation and the most egregious deus ex machina ending I’ve seen so far. I’m also judging it on Handel’s music, which includes some rather delicious arias, and on the performance of La Nuova Musica and their cast, which was extremely strong. Best of all, this concert performance featured a vivacious performance by Laurence Zazzo in the title role and a general tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledged the silliness of the story to the full. It didn’t stop the opera from being complete nonsense, but it did make it fun to watch.
We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.