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Imaginatively Programmed

Handel Arias from the Classical Opera Company,
enjoyed by ROBERT HUGILL


The Classical Opera Company has made quite a name for itself with the music of Mozart and his contemporaries, and its programme The A to Z of Mozart Opera is now out on CD. For the Handel centenary, director Ian Page has devised a similar list-like programme based around Handel's London operas, which was presented at London's Wigmore Hall on Monday 12 January 2009.

Handel wrote over thirty operas for London, his first in 1711 (Rinaldo) and the last in 1741 (Deidamia). Page put together fifteen arias and duets from fifteen operas sung by sopranos Sophie Bevan and Gillian Keith, and mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany. Interspersed between the arias were readings from Michael Maloney, quoting contemporary memoirs and documents.

Gillian Keith was a last minute replacement for Sarah Fox, who was ill. Very impressively, Keith sang the majority of items from memory, as did the other two singers. This made the performance far more immediate and improved communication in what could have been a fragmented programme. The arias were presented in historical order, starting with a brilliant account of Rinaldo's 'Venti, turbini' (Rinaldo) from Anna Stéphany.

Part one finished with a duet from Tolomeo, Handel's last opera for the first Royal Academy of Music, and this half thus became a survey of the first part of his operatic career, which included Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda and Tamerlano. Whilst there were some supremely good things in this half, none of the singers seemed to quite set the small stage a-fire. Gillian Keith's account of Cleopatra's 'Piangero' (Giulio Cesare) was impressive but not quite as moving as it could have been, though her performance showed little sign of her being a last minute substitution.

With the second half the three soloists seemed to relax and delivered some coruscating performances. Anna Stéphany's account of Ariodante's 'Scherza infida' (Ariodante) was profoundly moving and had a superb sense of line.

Alcina's 'Di, cor mio' (Alcina) from Sophie Bevan was similarly moving and not a little dazzling. Then Keith produced an incredible version of 'Vedi l'ape' from Berenice. This is a simile aria, referring to a bee, where Handel's accompaniment mirrors the sound of the bee. The aria was delivered by Keith at a remarkable speed, and with real bravura. Not to be outdone, Stéphany then gave us her bravura account of Serse's 'Se bramate d'amor' (Serse).

Handel's last opera Deidamia was represented by its closing duet, from Keith and Stéphany. Then finally we got a taste of what came after as Sophie Bevan sang 'No no I'll take no less' from Semele.

All three singers ornamented in a relatively discreet but imaginative way, there was little of the sort of radical recomposition of the vocal line which can seriously annoy. Both Keith and Bevan had quite rich, vibrant voices but allied to strong techniques and a good grasp of Handelian style. Stéphany's voice had a stronger sense of line and she created a series of quiet dignified figures, but not without the requisite fireworks. All three are talented but I felt that Stéphany is the one to really watch in this repertoire. She will be singing in Grange Park Opera's performances of Cavalli's Eliogabolo this summer.

Ian Page managed to fit a band of some fourteen on the stage. They delivered crisp accompaniments and were superbly responsive under Page's lively direction.

Hearing Handel played in the relatively small confines of the Wigmore Hall is always a joy. What we tend to forget is that Handel's theatres were not large and that his audience would have got a rather more intimate performance than happens nowadays when Handel is performed at the London Coliseum or the Royal Opera House.

Michael Maloney's interjections were always illuminating and informative, but they rather dwelled too much for my taste on Handel the rather crazy foreigner.

The concert made a strong start to the Handel centenary year. I hope there are others which are so imaginatively programmed and so well performed.

Copyright © 15 January 2009 Robert Hugill, London UK


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