Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Arias for Farinelli

Ann Hallenberg
Ann Hallenberg
Arias for Farinelli: Ann Hallenberg, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset: The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 28 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Hallenberg on brilliant form in a sequence of outrageous arias written for the great castrato

We can never really know what star castrato Farinelli's voice really sounded like, but by listening to the arias specifically written for him, we certainly get a good idea of his vocal style. At the Wigmore Hall on Monday 29 April, Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg and Les Talens Lyriques, directed by Christophe Rousset, performed Arias for Farinelli, arias by Geminiano Giacomelli, Nicola Porpora (who was Farinelli's teacher), Leonardo Leo and Riccardo Broschi (who was Farinelli's brother), plus music by JC Bach and Hasse.

Les Talens Lyrique - (c) Eric Larrayadieu
Les Talens Lyriques
photo Eric Larrayadieu
And what was certainly apparent from all the arias was the sheer quantity of notes in the vocal line. Farinelli (1705 - 1782) evidently calmed his vocal style down part of the way through his career, but none of the music we heard was simple, with evening the quieter, more lyrical pieces having a surprising number of notes in them. He obviously possessed and astounding technique and it requires a special sort of singer to perform this repertoire.

Hallenberg showed her mettle by opening with Son qual nave ch'agitata by Riccardo Broschi (1698 - 1756), from Artaserse (a pasticcio first performed in London in 1734). Broschi was Farinelli's elder brother; Farinelli's real name was Carlo Broschi. Riccardo write the role was specifically to suit his brother's talents and the aria is an astonishing thicket of notes. A simile aria about a boat seeing a harbour, the whole piece had a slightly mad, frantic air but was superbly performed by Hallenberg, Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques. Hallenberg sailed her way through the elaborate vocal line and made musical and dramatic sense of it, then added a few extra notes for good measure in the Da Capo.

Hallenberg has an attractive voice, with a warm lower register and a flexible top. Accompanied by a relatively small ensemble (just eight strings) there was never any need for her to push and we benefited from the consequent freedom this gave her.

Riccardo Broschi's Idaspe was written for the Venice Carnival in 1730. Ombra fedel anch'io is a slow sad number from it, with a gently expressive vocal line over a slowly throbbing accompaniement. But there were still plenty of melismatic sections and some rather striking sighing figures (something that re-occurred in later arias by other composers, so clearly a Farinelli trait). It was all very beautiful and very expressive, though the musical material was not very memorable.

We jumped forward a generation for the Symphony in G minor Op.6 No.6 by Johann Christian Bach (1735 - 1782), a three movement work for strings, oboes and horns written in 1770 whilst Bach was in London. The opening movement was vividly busy, with elements which hinted at early Mozart. The more lyrical moments were combined with some strong accents. Here and in the other movements, Bach was using dynamic and dramatic contrasts and speed changes, much in the way CPE Bach did. Whilst JC Bach's orchestral music is generally up beat, this work written in a minor key reflected the popular Sturm und Drang movement. This continued into the lovely middle movement, with its darkly singing unison passages from violins which gave the movement a very spare sound. The finale was furious again, in triple but with the textures being of more interest than the melodic material.

Adriano in Siria  is a setting of Metastasio's famous libretto by Geminiano Giacomelli (1692 - 1740) which Farinelli premiered in London in 1733. A rather galant piece, with a crisp and bouncy accompaniment and lyrical vocal line, the style seemed rather perky for the subject matter about a dying soul having a vision of the beloved's face. And the vocal line wasn't that simple, we still had Farinelli's trademark melismatic passages.

Nicola Porpora (1686 - 1768) was Farinelli's teacher in Naples, and Farinelli studied both singing and composition with him. Porpora's opera Semiramide riconosciuta was premiered in Venice in 1729, again to a libretto by Metastasio. The aria Si pietoso il tuo labro was a gently expressive piece in the galant style, with lyrical and expressively passagework for the voice over a throbbing accompaniment, complete with some sighing motifs. Here, and elsewhere in the concert, it was impressive the way Hallenberg was able to use the complex technical passages not just for display, but for expressive emotional purposes too.

Porpora's opera Polifemo was also written for London in 1735. The aria Alto Giove was a quietly lyrical and expressive number, at first not unlike one of Handel's slower arias, but the vocal line then went wandering an a manner alien to Handel. Hallenberg made it seem expressively natural with her combination of superb technique and musicality.

Next came another aria from Giacomelli's Adriano in Siria, Passagier che incerto. It started with a crisply galant ritornello, with a perky cast to the melody. Both Hallenberg and the ensemble gave a lovely characterful performance.

Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) wrote his opera Cleofide in 1731 for Dresden. Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques gave us the overture, a substantial three movement work. The busy, brisk and rather exhausting opening movement gave way to a gentle, galant middle movement with a jolly triple time finale.

Leonardo Leo (1694 - 1744) wrote his opera Catone in Utica in 1729 (setting a text by Metastasio), it was the piece with which Farinelli first made a stir in Venice. The aria Che legge spietata combined a fascinating unison melody in the violins with a lyrical and characterful but still showy vocal line. There was also a rather nice swagger to the whole piece. The second aria from the opera, Cervo in bosco was a hunting simile aria, so we had two horns in the orchestra. A brisk piece, with repeated notes in the accompaniment, and a brilliant virtuoso solo line which incorporated striking wide leaps.

Throughout Hallenberg sang with style and bravura making each aria work on its own terms and giving us a good insight into Farinelli's style. She was finely and stylishly accompanied by Christophe Rousset and Les Talents Lyriques with Rousset rarely, if ever, conducting but simply directing from the keyboard.

Frankly, the main interest of the evening was in the ornamental vocal lines with much of the musical material being relatively unmemorable, but redeemed by a series of astonishing performances from Hallenberg. Accompaniments were generally unimaginative with oboes and horns used discreetly if at all, and much chugging in the strings.

Clearly the composers were giving Farinelli the sort of arias where there would be no competition for his vocal talents. A strong minded composer like Handel did not give the singers all their own way. Qute what could be achieved we heard in the encore when Hallenberg and the ensemble gave us a wonderful performance of Sta nell'Ircana from Handel's Alcina.

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