Concert-Live performance

Opera Streaming – Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano in Ravenna

Photo © Zani-Casadio

With the onset of the Covid pandemic, the streaming of live opera became an increasingly viable and popular way not only to bring opera to an established audience unable to attend public venues, but also to open up the genre to a new audience. Opera Streaming is the name given to a seasonal programme of opera transmissions that are freely available on YouTube. Based in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, the project draws on the productions presented in an area rich in historic theatres. Within this comparatively small region, there are no fewer than eight theatres, those of Bologna, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna and Rimini. Opera Streaming has no input into the theatre production, streaming solely without interference as an ‘onlooker’. Among the works scheduled for the 2022-23 season were new productions of Verdi’s Rigoletto (from Piacenza), Die Fledermaus, given in Italian (!), and the one to which I was invited, Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano given in the beautiful mid-19th century theatre in Ravenna on January 14 and 15, on the latter of which the opera was streamed live.

I wrote above ‘Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano’ but knowledgeable Vivaldians will be aware that is only partially true, since the opera is a pasticcio, one of three operas commissioned by the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona for the Carnaval season of 1735. Vivaldi had been hired as impresario for the season, so his occupation in that capacity probably accounts for the reason he put on a pasticcio, one based on a manuscript of his own, Il Bajazet. From that he took the majority of arias, but added others by Giacomelli (3 arias), Hasse (3) and Riccardo Broschi, the brother of Farinelli, who is represented by two. Vivaldi was therefore left with only recitatives to compose, including several stretches of accompagnato, most notably Bajazet’s spine-chilling denunciation of his daughter Asteria near the end of act 2. Also worth noting as being of exceptional quality is Tamerlano’s ‘Cruda sorte’, taken from Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia of 1733, although that almost certainly had much to do with the magnificent performance it received at Ravenna. But more on that anon. Tamerlano has a libretto by Agostino Piovane that had already been set by several composers, in particular Handel (1724). It is relatively unusual among Baroque operas in having a straightforward story without subplots. It concerns the relationship between the famous Mongol emperor Timur (Tamerlano), who historically defeated the Turks and captured their Sultan, Bayezid (Bajazet). Although Tamerlano is engaged to Princess Irene, he has fallen in love with Asteria the daughter of Bajazet, who has been promised in marriage to the Greek prince Andronico. The opera revolves largely around the battle of minds between victor and loser, but encompasses the moving and powerful love of a proud father who would rather take his own life, than see his daughter become the wife of his hated enemy Tamerlano.

Ravenna’s production started with two considerable advantages: the first the presence in the orchestra pit of the local home team, the Accademia Bizantina under their director Ottavio Dantone, indisputably for some years Italy’s number one Baroque orchestra, who also made a superlative recording of Il Tamerlano some two years ago with a cast that featured the same principals. This told especially in the Tamerlano of the outstanding Filippo Mineccia, who sang throughout with thrilling power and intensity, and the equally impressive Asteria of Delphine Galou, at once a vulnerable and strong character. As Bajazet the baritone Bruno Taddia was a commanding presence, even if vocally the voice itself sounded more worn than it had done on the recording and was less impressive than that of Gianluca Margheri, who took over for the live streaming. Honours in the roles of Irene and Andronico remain in the hands of the recording artists, Sophie Rennert, whose Irene equalled that of Marie Lys for command of coloratura demanded by the role but excelled it for tonal beauty, while Marina de Liso’s outstanding fluid and gracious Andronico was also preferable to that of sopranist Federico Fiorio, though the latter deserves credit for the trill of the performance (the only one throughout apart from a brief attempt by Galou). Both Giuseppina Bridelli in the theatre and Ariana Vendittelli (on CD) were excellent as Idaspe. However, without undermining some fine singing, the point has to be made that the true stars of the performance were Accademia Bizantina, whose playing under Dantone was simply magnificent.

Rather less than magnificent was the production of Stefano Monti, who also designed the sets and costumes. The basic stage set, which incorporated a fair amount of meaningless or puzzling (take your choice) back projection, was clean and uncluttered, featuring only monumental stone columns and steps on each side of the stage. I claim no expertise on the subject of the garb of Mongol warriors, but quick research courtesy of Google suggests Monti’s are pretty authentic looking. Less authentic for an era where operas were staged with bravura magnificence and brilliance was the drab impression made by the staging, predominated as it was by greys and blacks, with the odd splash of red from time to time. Nevertheless, such caveats pale into insignificance compared with Monti’s greatest blunder. This was the decision to have each character shadowed by what was termed a dancer, but in reality was a twitching, demented marionette whose activity barely ceased. The movement not only conflicted for the majority of the time with the music, but, worse, committed the cardinal Baroque opera crime of detracting attention from a singer’s aria time after time, sufficient indeed to earn several lifetime sentences. If you wish to see for yourself, Opera Streaming’s relay will be available on YouTube for six months at the time of writing (June 2023). You can catch it HERE .

Brian Robins

Concert-Live performance

A Bach Family Concert at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig

It was only a fleeting visit. But even a fleeting visit to the Bach Festival in Leipzig is not to be spurned if you’ve not previously visited the city in which the majority of Bach’s greatest sacred works were composed. Their composition of course formed part of his duties as Kantor of the Thomaschule, the choir school that served to provide choristers for Leipzig’s churches, most importantly the Nicolaikirche, at that time the principal town church, and the Thomaskirche.

First impressions of  21st-century Leipzig to a new visitor are likely to be of a city positively seething with life and energy, not so surprising when one learns it is home to one of the largest student populations in Germany. This bustle and vitality spills over into the annual Bachfest, which far from being restricted to the hallowed ground of the churches in which Bach worked or concert halls includes among nearly 150 events popular concerts that take over the central market square.

This year’s festival was held under the theme ‘Bach – We Are Family’, a motto certainly appropriate for the concert I attended in the Thomaskirche on 11 June. It was given by Les Talens Lyriques under their director Christophe Rousset, with the Vocalconsort Berlin and soloists Rachel Redmond (s), Hagar Sharvit (a), William Knight (t), and Krešimir Stražanac (b-bar).  As in Bach’s day, the performers were situated in the unusually spacious organ gallery, doubtless the reason we know Bach favoured the Thomaskirche for larger-scale choral works. The programme was an intriguing one, if curious by modern-day tastes. It took the form of a concert given in Hamburg by C. P. E. Bach in 1786, a concert that would be the last given by Bach’s now 72-year-old son. It appears to have served two purposes, one practical, since it was a charity concert, the other Bach’s desire at the end of his life to promote his own legacy and, unusually for the time, include historical works that served to preserve the heritage of his father and Handel, his father’s great contemporary.

Rousset’s reconstruction made little attempt at pure historical accuracy, not least because he used only the smallish choir possible in the Thomaskirche gallery (three voices per part), when accounts of the Hamburg concert tell us C. P. E employed a large choir that included amateur women singers with Bach’s professional males. Notwithstanding the use of small numbers made the performance of Credo from the B-minor Mass especially interesting to one long ago convinced by the Joshua Rifkin/Andrew Parrott argument in favour of Bach’s use of one-voice-per-part in his choral works. From where I sat in the pews facing the nave near the front of the church contrapuntal sound tended to become confused in quicker music, but sounded much better in slower music and, significantly, at its best with solo passages such as the duet ‘Et in unum’, where the sweetness of the strings was also noteworthy. It would of course be idle to try to draw too many conclusions from such a brief encounter in one place in the Thomaskirche, especially as I’m told there was more wood in the church in Bach’s day; that may well have soaked up more of the resonance. Notwithstanding it made for a fascinating, thought-provoking experience.

Credo, which having been written as part of a work designed for the Catholic court in Dresden could never have been performed in the Thomaskirche in Bach’s day, was in fact the only work of J. S’s to be included, the remainder being devoted to two excerpts from Messiah, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘Hallelujah’, given the context incongruously if very well sung in English. The remainder of the concert featured music by C. P. E himself, most notably in his Magnificat in D, originally composed in 1749 as an informal application to succeed his father as Thomaskantor, but here given in the version adapted for Hamburg that added three trumpets. As my illustration shows,Rousset used players employing ‘holeless’ trumpets and to exciting effect (they can be seen to the far right of the orchestra). The performances by choir and orchestra throughout were excellent, though the solo singing was more variable, the best of it coming from the outstanding young Croatian bass Krešimir Stražanac. But this was not really an occasion for detailed critical analysis, rather for this listener at least an intensely moving opportunity to hear the music of Bach and his most talented son just a few metres from where the remains of the great Kantor now lie at rest after their reburial in the chancel after the Johanniskirche was bombed in World War II.

Brian Robins

PHOTO CREDIT: Christophe Rousset directs Vocalconcert Berlin and Les Talens Lyriques in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig © Bachfest 2022

Concert-Live performance Festival-conference

Les Rencontres musicales de Vézelay

If you happy to be lucky enough to be a couple of hundred miles south east of Paris from 25-28 August 2022, don’t miss the many early music treats at the 22nd festivals. Curated by “Cité de la voix”, you can hear Handel’s “Esther”, Scarlatti’s “Stabat mater” and Reinoud van Mechelen’s critically acclaimed programme devoted to Rameau’s leading high tenor, Jéliote. Check out the festival HERE.

Concert-Live performance


For obvious reasons, St John’s Smith  Square is an ideal venue for a festival of sacred music for Holy Week. This Easter Festival, which took place between 10 and 17 April, featured a broad mix of repertoire from across the centuries, the concert on 14 April with the vocal ensemble Sansara and Fretwork illustrating the eclectic nature of the festival by including works by the Tudor composer Robert White and Arvo Pärt. Unsurprisingly early music was well represented, with concerts including Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (Anna Devin and Hugh Cutting), Handel and Vivaldi (his Stabat mater, RV621 with Hilary Cronin and Cutting again, the former a Handel Festival prize winner, the latter a Ferrier award winner). Perhaps the most ambitious event was the candlelit late-night concerts by Sansara of Gesualdo’s tormented Tenebrae Responsories, given in a candlelit liturgical context over three nights. More traditional Easter fare featured in a Bach St John Passion (Polyphony and OAE under Stephen Layton), before the festival was brought to a conclusion by the Belgian-based ensemble Vox Luminus, under the unobtrusive direction of bass Lionel Meunier.

It was this concert that we were able to attend along with an audience that was disappointingly sparse given Vox Luminus’s present eminence among vocal ensembles. I suppose Westminster is perhaps not a place of choice for many potential concert-goers to be on an Easter Sunday afternoon. Sadly, too, the level of Schütz’s box-office appeal in this country is far from commensurate with his greatness as a composer, so that his profoundly affecting Musicalische Exequien was the centrepiece of the concert may also have proved a deterrent. A German requiem, the work was commissioned from Schütz for his own funeral obsequies by a German nobleman. In this performance, it was given within the context of a funeral, including the opening chorale ‘Mit Fried und Freud’ that accompanied the funeral procession into the church, and to conclude the exquisite German setting of the ‘Nunc dimittis’, which employs evocative in lontano effects, here most atmospherically brought off. It was an award-winning recording of the work in 2012 that first brought Vox Luminus to wide notice. With its alternation of tutti ensemble movements and Favoriten passages for one or more soloists, the Musicalische Exequien is ideally suited to the strengths of Vox Luminus, which over the years have cultivated the individuality of the singers, all of whom are required to undertake solo parts, within integrated ensemble singing in which the personality of each singer remains paramount. At St John’s, ensemble was further tested by a visitation to Vox Luminus of the Covid curse, necessitating several late replacements. It barely showed, the rare odd slip being of the kind that can occur at any time. Far more importantly, with the slight caveat that the ensemble’s principal soprano slightly tended to dominate the texture in ripieno passages, this was overall a deeply sensitive and moving performance that so obviously came from the heart.

Much the same can be said of the two Bach cantatas that made up the programme. Both ‘Christ lag in Todes Banden’, BWV4 and the so-called ‘Actus Tragicus’ (‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’), BWV106 are among the earliest cantatas Bach wrote and works that owe more to 17th-century predecessors such as Schütz and Buxtehude than the more modern type of Italianate cantata adopted by Bach in his later Leipzig cantatas. BWV106 is a funeral cantata probably composed during Bach’s brief Mühlhausen period (1707-08) for obsequies the details of which are unknown. Scored for minimal forces – SATB ‘choir’ – here of course rightly single voices per part – with solo interjections and just pairs of recorders (instruments associated with death during this period) and viola da gambas, and continuo. More consolatory than dramatic, the performance achieved a wonderfully intimate and inward-looking perspective on death, particularly touching in the exchange between the bass and the alto soloist’s chorale that immediately precedes the final chorale.

BWV4 could not have been a more appropriate choice to round off the programme, it being a cantata for Easter Sunday, the exact year of composition also not established, though it probably dates from his Weimar period (1708-13). It is cast in the form of a set of chorale variations, the melody retained throughout the seven verses which are varied both melodically and in their scoring and vocal disposition. Meunier here went with a larger-scale reading, employing three voices per part, doubtless so as to include all his performers, which caught the vibrant celebratory nature of the cantata effectively. This richly rewarding concert was rounded off by an encore in the shape of Buxtehude’s cantata, termed ‘aria’ in manuscript sources, ‘Jesu meines Lebens Leben’, BuxWV62, which is set over an ostinato bass. The timeline between Schütz and Bach was thus neatly bridged.

Brian Robins

Concert-Live performance Recording Sheet music

Paradise regained

If you are lucky enough to be in or near Lyon on 21 March, you shouldn’t miss the first performance in modern times of an oratorio by Luigi Mancia, who was maestro di cappella in Mantua at the end of the 17th century. If you like to find out more about its re-discovery in an anonymous manuscript in Lyon’s municipal library and hear extracts (including an amazing aria accompanied by three concertante cellos!) follow this link (in French!) The performance is expected to last one and three-quarter hours, not including the interval. Tickets are available here.

Concert-Live performance

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival 2020

Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Elizabeth Kenny (lute) – Dowland
Richard Gowers (organ) – Handel, Tomkins, Byrd and Tallis
Friday 18 September 2020

Founded by the British cellist Guy Johnson nine years ago, the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival was one of the relatively few events in Britain to have survived this most catastrophic of years for music making, albeit by adapting itself to the prevailing conditions. Four concerts were filmed and presented before members of the owner Lord Salisbury’s family for relay on YouTube on Friday evenings during September. They were given in several of Hatfield House’s historic and spectacular rooms, the one reviewed here taking place in the magnificent Long Gallery (pictured above) and the Armoury, the home of a historic organ built in 1609.

I have to confess to being no great enthusiast for filmed concerts (or opera for that matter), but the close links between the Cecils (the family name of Lord Salisbury) and John Dowland made the gorgeous setting unusually appropriate and fascinating. It was to the courtier Sir Robert Cecil (from 1605 the 1st Earl of Salisbury) that Dowland wrote a famous letter, a mea culpa in which he tried to excuse himself from having become involved with Roman Catholic plotters in Florence on his aborted trip to Rome. Today the letter is housed in the archives of Hatfield House, allowing Iestyn Davies to take a break from the concert (one advantage of filming) to examine it, a touching moment.

In a trailer both Davies and Elizabeth Kenny spoke of how they had found that the historic associations added a dimension to their performances, feeling that the music resounded sympathetically from their surroundings. Certainly, the acoustic of the Long Gallery was lively, giving both voice and lute ample, rounded sonority. The concert included five of Dowland’s best-known songs and a pair of galliards, those dedicated to the King of Denmark and Lady Rich, for solo lute. Given the well-established qualities of both performers, the performances were never likely to be less than highly satisfying, expectations more than fulfilled. The sweetness and beauty of Davies’ countertenor is never in doubt and here he searched beneath the surface of the texts in a way that to my mind he does not always achieve. Reservations largely concerned the slow tempos at which he took the darkest numbers, including ‘Flow my tears’ and ‘In darkness let me dwell’, which for me resulted in both taking on a measure of 21st-century sentimentality that missed on the ambiguous aspects of Dowland’s attachment to the doleful. But the beautiful messa di voce which the concluding line of each verse of ‘Flow my tears’ ended was something to treasure. Otherwise, it might have been good to have had more varied embellishment in strophic songs, particularly one with as many verses as ‘Come again sweet love’, though Davies caught its light-hearted mood to perfection.

The second part of the concert moved to the Armoury for a short recital given by Richard Gowers on the 1609 organ supplied by John Haan, a Dutchman. One of the few organs from the period to survive, it also retains the beautiful decorations by Rowland Bucket, the artist responsible for many of the interior decorations of Hatfield House. The most substantial piece Gowers played was the second of Handel’s Six Fugues, while he also included the same composer’s mimetic voluntary known as ‘Flight of Angels’, Thomas Tomkins’ odd Voluntary in D and brief works by Byrd and Tallis. The organ has an extraordinarily translucent sound, yet also an agreeable mellowness. The playing was fluent, if not without the odd mishap.

Brian Robins

Concert-Live performance

Vézelay weekend

If you happen to be lucky enough to live near Vézelay in France, the Cité de la Voix would like to welcome you back into concert life during the weekend of 18-19 September.

In a free concert on the Saturday evening Ensemble Agamemnon brings a Mediterranean touch to a variety of music including Italian cantatas, while (following another free early recital, this time by Trio Musica Humana) Jean Tubéry directs guest soprano Camille Joutard and his ensemble La Fenice in “Musique pour la Monica”, tracing the varied use of a popular tune in the baroque period.

For details of the full season, click this link: BRO_AUTOMNE_2020_web.

Concert-Live performance Festival-conference

The Cesti International Singing Competition

Innsbruck 2019

The ten finalists. Winner Grace Durham is second from the left. Photo © Celina Friedrichs

For the past decade an important component of the prestigious Innsbruck Early Music Festival has been the singing competition named after Pietro Antonio Cesti, several of whose operas were premiered in Innsbruck during the period he spent there as a court composer to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl. 2019 also sees the 350th anniversary of the death of Cesti, an event that will be commemorated later in the festival season with a production of his opera La Dori, first given in Innsbruck in 1657.

The singing competition was inaugurated ten years ago as the brainchild of the Innsbruck Festival’s artistic director Alessandro De Marchi, with past prize winners including a number of singers who have gone on to make an international career, most notably Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth, who will take the title role in La Dori. Such is the eminence of the competition today that this year’s edition attracted over 200 entrants, their number reduced initially to 99, then to the ten finalists who contested two rounds before the final, broadcast live and held before the jury and an audience on 8 August in the Grosser Saal of Innsbruck’s imposing modern Haus der Musik.

The format for the evening involved each finalist singing two arias, one taken from Alessandro Melani’s L’empio punito (Rome, 1669), which will be staged at the 2020 Festival with a role for the winner. The other was free choice, it being perhaps a little disappointing that the majority of singers rather unambitiously selected Handel arias. On offer were three major prizes awarded by an international panel of jurists, in addition to which there was an audience prize, a young artist’s prize and an engagement with Resonanzen, the early music festival held in Vienna each January. The roster of finalists was dominated by higher voices, including six sopranos (one a male falsettist) and two mezzos, with only a bass and a baritone to represent lower registers.

When he came to introduce the prize awards, jury chairman Michael Fichtenholz (Zurich Opera and Karlsruhe Handel Festival) made the perhaps revealing observation that the jury wished them well on whatever path their career might take them, perhaps tacit recognition that on the evidence of what we had heard not all the finalists seemed likely ultimately to pursue a career in early music. Perhaps more predictable were the inevitable platitudes to the effect that all the contestants deserved a prize. In some senses Fichtenholz was right. The overall professionalism and ability to communicate and articulate text was impressive, as was the general technical level of achievement in such as generally well-articulated passaggi. However it could equally be argued that in other respects none of the contestants deserved a prize in an early music singing contest. Throughout twenty arias, only one singer (the eventual winner) came anywhere near attempting a trill, a basic requirement of Baroque singing technique, and we did not hear a single example of that most beautifully expressive and greatly prized Baroque ornament, the messa di voce. It continues to perplex me that singers looking to perform early music are sent out into the world so ill-equipped to do it justice in such respects. Poorly controlled vocal production was another of the problems for several of the singers with larger voices, while another matter to which some of them might also attend are disagreeable facial expressions that would not have passed Tosi’s dictum to avoid making an ugly face while singing.

The three lesser prizes awarded went to the same singer, the Austrian soprano Miriam Kutrowatz, the youngest singer in the competition and obviously a popular choice. Belying her age (22), she sang both her arias with a range of colour and nuance beyond most of her seniors, while also displaying a charming personality. She came very close to being my overall choice, though in the end my vote went to the Hungarian soprano Orsolya Nyakas, who sang her Melani aria with an engaging sweetness and character, while displaying absolute security and a touching emotional response to Melissa’s ‘Ah, spietato!’ from Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula. Her da capo ornamentation and cadenzas were also more stylish than those of most of her rivals. The second and third placed sopranos, Dioklea Hoxha from Kosovo and the Cypriot soprano Theodora Raftis both sang with great commitment if not always perfect control, but they are singers I would expect to find moving quite happily on to later repertoire. While feeling pride that the competition produced a British winner, mezzo Grace Durham will I suspect also be unlikely to follow an early music career, an impression underlined by her CV. The voice itself has a lovely warm and rounded quality, but though her singing of ‘Son qual misera’ from Hasse’s Cleofide had its impressive moments, I found myself disagreeing with the jury, finding some of her singing poorly controlled.

The Cesti Singing Competition, in which the singers were faithfully supported by members of the Cesti Orcestra under the direction of harpsichordist Mariangiola Martello, proved to be a rewarding, compelling and thought-provoking experience.

Brian Robins

Concert-Live performance

Edward Higginbottom on Handel’s many Triumphs

The oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth is the last of Handel’s works in the genre, and perhaps the most neglected. Unlike the customary setting of a Biblical narrative, it adopts an allegorical theme, in this instance a text concerning the struggle of virtue over the pursuit of pleasure. The work was assembled in 1757, and assembled is the right word, for all of its music had already been composed, and much of it a long while back.

When Handel was living in Italy (1706-1709), Cardinal Pamphili commissioned an oratorio entitled Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, performed early in 1707. It was a two-act work, for strings, woodwinds and five solo voices, these being the personages of Time (bass), Counsel (alto), Beauty (soprano), Deceit (soprano) and Pleasure (tenor). In essence a chamber work, Il Trionfo  unfolds in a sequence of alluring arias in which the competing claims of Pleasure and Time fight for the soul of Beauty. She is inclined to follow the voices of Pleasure and Deceit, until she heeds, virtuously, the advice of Counsel and Time. The work shows Handel in his early brilliance, fluent and brimming with ideas. Italy at this time was the backdrop to his first operas, his large-scale Latin church music and his many Italian cantatas. There is no doubting the young composer’s imagination and zest: the arias of Il Trionfo  are wonderfully characterised and varied. The somewhat static allegory takes wing in Handel’s music.

© Nick Rutter

The moralizing theme was apt for a Cardinal, and for post-Tridentine Rome. And the scale of the work was apt for a private audience. In 1737, now firmly ensconced in London, Handel returned to the score, producing an English version, still in two acts, and for the same forces. However, the notion of making of it something bigger and more accessible to the general public came to him only towards the very end of his life, in 1757. At this stage, his physical powers had declined markedly; he was infirm and could not see. But his amanuenses were at hand to assist, and Thomas Morell, who had written libretti for previous oratorios (including Judas Maccabaeus  and Jephtha) obliged by translating and adapting the text. The composer’s motivation may have been mixed. On the one hand, here was an excellent score little known to the English public, a score that with the addition of choruses might make its way as Handel’s next oratorio. On the other hand, Handel was himself thinking about his mortality, writing his will, and maybe also reflecting on a life lived. Indeed, it was a life lived all too well, given in part to the pleasures of the table, as unkindly observed by the satirical caricaturist Goupy. The allegory of the work, now called The Triumph of Time and Truth, played into Handel’s own circumstances. And its moral message was perhaps weighing on his mind.

© Nick Rutter

There is some truth in the observation that the revised score was somewhat ‘cobbled together’. Clearly, no one starting out on an oratorio would write only one movement (the first) for trumpets and drums, putting them aside for the whole of the rest of the work. The curious appearance of one of the movements from Handel’s Anthem for the Foundling Hospital  (1749), has also been criticised for its irrelevance. In response, it could be said that it stands as a reference to Handel’s philanthropy (he was a donor to and governor of Thomas Coram’s newly created Foundling Hospital). It speaks autobiographically, as testament to the composer’s state of mind: he was indeed heeding the advice of Counsel, and following the words of Time, turning his back on the pursuit of pleasure for the pursuance of good works.

Broadly speaking, the chorus additions, the sine qua non  of an English oratorio format, sit with surprising ease and relevance inside the original structure, speaking not only of Beauty’s journey through life, but also Handel’s. The dates at which Handel turned to his allegorical subject, 1707, 1737, 1757, ring out as the beginning, middle and end of a prodigiously prolific career. This oratorio, more than any other, speaks of the breadth and compass of Handel’s work as a composer of large-scale vocal compositions. It deserves more attention than it ordinarily gets. And this October it gets its merited attention from the eponymous Instruments of Time and Truth and Oxford Consort of Voices.+

Edward Higginbottom

+Performances on

  • October 7th – St Mary’s Church, Tetbury
  • October 19th – King’s Place, London
  • October 20th – Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

More information is available at

Concert-Live performance

Lully: Alceste

Les Talens Lyriques, Versailles, 12 December 2017

Christophe Rousset, director of Les Talens Lyriques

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough the beautifully restored theatre in the palace of Versailles dates from a century after Lully’s day, it obviously makes for an appropriate venue for his operas. Indeed in the case of Alceste  it did have a contemporary performance at Versailles, some six months after its premiere at the Paris Opéra in January 1674. That occasion marked part of the celebrations following the victory over Franche-Comté, when in July Alceste  was given an open-air performance in the Cour de Marbre.

The concert performance given on 12 December was a continuation of Christophe Rousset’s peerless cycle of Lully’s operas, having been first given at the Beaune Festival in the summer. It also appeared on CD contemporaneously with the Versailles performance. Alceste was the second of Lully’s thirteen tragédies en musique. Like nearly all of them it has a libretto by Philippe Quinault based on the work of a classical author, in this case, Euripides’ Alcestis. To the considerable annoyance of the classicists of his day, Quinault took considerable liberties with the story of Alceste’s self-sacrifice to save her husband King Admetus (Admète) from death, in particular introducing a love triangle by making the hero Hercules (Alcide) a rival for the attentions of the queen. Worse still from the point of view of the purists, Quinault introduced a secondary and largely comic trio in the shape of the confidant(e)s Céphise, Lychas and Stratton. Today we are more likely to welcome the variation such mixed genres provide, but it is interesting that Lully and Quinault would quickly lead the way in dropping comic scenes, thus presaging a similar move by Italian opera by some two decades. Quinault’s libretto is indeed notable for its diversity, containing as it does a Prologue set on the banks of the Seine, a seaport and a sinking ship (act 1), dramatic battle scenes that inspired Lully to colourful pomp and brilliant orchestral effects (act 2), the darkness of the funeral obsequies for first Admetus, and later Alceste (act 3), Hercules’ journey to Hades to redeem Alceste, complete with a comic Charon, who worries that the massive hero will sink his boat (act 4), and a final act in which Admetus is initially overcome with joy by the return to life of Alceste, then distraught that he has lost her to Hercules, to whom he promised Alceste should the hero bring her back from Hades. Ultimately all is of course resolved by Hercules nobly returning her to her husband.

Lully sets all this in the flexible alternation between the récitative  he had evolved from the declamation he had studied in the theatre with the airs derived from the airs de cour  of the earlier part of the century. Completing the picture is of course dance, the divertissements  that concluded each act. If later tragédies en musique  are marked by greater maturity and development of the genre, the score of Alceste  is remarkable for its assurance and a use of the orchestra unrivalled by any other composer of the day. The playful character of the love games of the young Céphise with her suitors, contrasts strongly with the moving gravity of the mourning for both king and queen; it is a mark of the flexibility Quinault brought to his book that the flirtatious Céphise plays a deeply touching role in the lamentations for Alceste.

Rousset’s performance maintained the extraordinarily high quality of his previous Lully opera readings. Indeed, given that he here had a cast as near flawless as one has a right to expect the impact created will remain long in the mind. The revelation of the evening for me was mezzo Ambroisine Bré’s Céphise, pertly coquettish, yet also capable of deeper emotional responses. This is a lovely voice, fresh and evenly produced across its range, while also highly accomplished in the execution of ornamentation. Bass Edwin Crossley-Mercer, a Roussset stalwart was a rich-toned and authoritative Alcide, a figure of considerably greater sensitivity than the usual portrayals of Hercules as a rather dense strongman. As his rival, the haute contre  Emiliano Gonzalez Toro was a dignified Admeto, infinitely touching in his farewell scene with Alceste, deeply impressive in the king’s conflicting emotions at the start of act 5. Judith Van Wanroij’s Alceste was marked by a touching, empathetic warmth that extended to real understanding not only for her husband, but also Alcide, the other man who would give her his love. The many remaining parts were divided between five singers, each admirable, of whom Spanish soprano Lucia Martín Cartón and bass Douglas Williams particularly impressed, the latter as Lycomède, the warlike villain of the piece, and Charon. The Namur Chamber Choir have become the ‘go-to’ chorus for large chunks of the Baroque repertoire, their alert response and excellent characterisation here typical of their stellar work. Les Talens Lyriques responded with the finesse and fervour they invariably bring to their playing under their founder, who is now unshakably established as the outstanding Lully interpreter of our (and probably any) day.

Brian Robins