Sunday 15 December 2013

Lawrence Zazzo and La Nuova Musica in arias by Handel, Bononcini and Ariosti

La Nuova Musica
La Nuova Musica
Handel's period writing operas for the Royal Academy in London in the 1720's did not see him as the solo star composer of opera, he was joined by other composers deliberately recruited by the directors to provide London with a range of operas. So that alongside operas by Handel, Londoners heard operas by Giovanni Bononcini (1670 - 1747) and Attilio Ariosti (1666 - 1729). 
Lawrence Zazzo
Lawrence Zazzo

Whilst Handel's younger contemporary Hasse has come in for something of a revival recently, the operas of Bononcini and Ariosti seem to languish. In a concert at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, on Friday 13 Decemer 2013 as part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, counter tenor Lawrence Zazzo sought to rectify this by performing a programme of arias from operas by Handel, Bononcini and Ariosti from the 1720's, accompanied by La Nuova Musica directed by David Bates. The orchestra also played orchestral music from operas by Handel and Ariosto, as well as Corelli's Christmas Concerto.

Our view of Handel's work in the 1720's is, to a certain extent, distorted by our historical view of his undoubted importance. But to opera goers of the period composers like Bononcini and Ariosti were just as important. In the early 1720's several of Bononcini's operas had more performances than Handel's and his fame somewhat pre-dated Handel's. Bononcini's opera Il trionfo di Camilla was performed over 60 times in London between 1706 and 1709 and the Royal Academy had unsuccessfully tried to entice Bononcini to London in 1707. When Handel started running his own opera company, after the collapse of the Royal Academy in the later 1720's, he still judged Bononcini and Ariosti's operas worthy of revival. So why haven't we heard of them?

In a pre-concert talk Lawrence Zazzo explained that for most of the operas, the manuscripts do not survive. In some cases the arias performed at the concert are the only survivors of complete operas, and sometimes all we have are the printed selections of arias which usually do not reflect the original orchestrations; selections were printed so that the 18th century audience could perform the arias in their own homes.

Most of the arias performed by Zazzo were written for the Royal Academy's star castrato Senesino and whilst Zazzo's voice is clearly different from that of Senesino, the tessitura of the arias clearly suits him and he was able to do full justice to the wide range of emotions and technical challenges which the arias presented.

Bates and the orchestra started with the overture to Ariosti's Vespasiano (premiered in 1724 a month before Handel's Giulio Cesare). The orchestra brought a crisp and brilliant edge to the music. Ariosti was 20 years older than Handel and his music, for me, recalled that of Purcell in his grandest manner. The overture was full of lovely textures, though the actual musical material was less memorable than Handel's could be. In its multi-section construction the piece rather resembled a concerto grosso. A charming piece, Bates and his orchestra certainly made us wonder what the rest of the opera might be like.

Zazzo's first aria was Rompo i lacci from act one of Handel's Flavio (premiered at the end of the 1723 season). Flavio is a semi-comic anti-heroic opera but the aria is a dramatic tour de force. Handel opens with a terrific tune in the orchestra, and Zazzo entered with great bravura, bringing a dramatic edge to his performance with some vivid passage-work. The B section was beautifully relaxed with an oboe solo full of lovely rounded tone. Here and elsewhere the orchestra contributed some lovely alert playing.

Next followed a group of arias from operas by Bononcini. Per la gloria d'adoravi from Griselda is perhaps his best known aria, being the one included in selections of baroque arias. Griselda is based on the story familiar from Boccacio. Per la gloria had a graceful, rather galant melodic style with Zazzo accompanied by just solo violin and continuo. Zazzo's performance was stylish and vibrant, with some vividly strong tone and elaborate ornaments in the da capo. In Cosi stanco pellegrino from Bononcini's Crispo (performed in London in 1722), Zazzo and the ensemble performed three versions of the aria. In the initial A section, they performed the simplest version as published, in the B section they performed a reconstruction of the London version and in the da capo used the even more elaborate version from the Roman performances of the opera. The aria opened with a lovely violin solo, to which was added a pleasingly evocative vocal line, full of expressive melodic felicity. The accompaniment to the B section was more developed and by the time we reached the da capo, the orchestral accompaniment had become elaborate indeed, complementing the vocal line with some lovely textures. The tessitura clearly suited Zazzo's voice admirably and he introduced some lovely ornaments in the da capo. The final Bononcini aria in this group was Tigre piagata from Muzio Scevola. Premiered in 1721, the opera typified the way the directors of the Royal Academy encouraged the perceived rivalry between their composers. Handel and Bononcini each composed an act of the opera, with the remaining act being written by Amadei, the principal cellist in the company's orchestra. Bononcini's aria is a bravura, rather martial number originally sung by Senesino in the title role (the character has just deliberately burned his own hand). We had some fabulous passage-work from Zazzo, with quite a discreet accompaniment with the orchestra only getting their head in the rather catchy ritornellos.

The orchestra then performed the first three movements of the Concerto grosso in G minor, Op.6 No.8 by Arcangel Corelli (1653 - 1713) Fatto per la notte di Natale, the so-called Christmas Concerto. After a richly dramatic opening, we had some lovely intersecting violin solos and quite a dramatic, strong toned performance. In the slower sections the suspensions combined magically with the solo lines, in an elegant but vibrant performance.

. Zazzo, Bates and the orchestra returned to Handel for the final two items of the first half. Io son tradito...Tanti affani from Ottone (premiered 1723) consists of a dramatic accompagnato developing into a slow aria (a combination which played to the castrato Senesino's strengths). The accompagnato was vividly done by Zazzo, with the orchestra contributing Handel's wonderful sequence of harmonies underneath. In the aria there was a lovely wandering violin part complementing the highly expressive vocal line. Zazzo's performance was highly affecting, sung with very full voice, making a vibrantly vivid sound. Part one concluded with the aria Va tacito e nascosto from Handel's Giulio Cesare, with its spectacular obbligato french horn part here brilliantly played by Alec Frank-Gemill. Zazzo brought a great feeling of line to the aria, superbly complemented by Frank-Gemill lovely even tone. Having Frank-Gemill playing at the front of the stage meant that, during the aria's B section when the horn is tacet, we were treated to the sight of frank-Gemill removing the crook from his horn and emptying it; a very necessary activity, but not one which exactly complemented Zazzo's singing. In the da capo both singer and horn player had great fun swapping and matching ornaments and the cadenza became a tour de force a deux.

Part two opened with the short, but dramatic and rather French-sounding Ballo di larve from Handel's Admeto, which again showcased the ensemble's lovely-toned oboes (played by Leo Duarte and Sarah Humphreys). Omdi larvi...Chidetevi, miei lumi from Admeto followed. In the opera (premiered in 1727) the orchestral piece is played as we see Admeto (originally sung by Senesino) on his deathbed, and he then sings a dramatic accompagnato in which he curses the Furies followed by a simple lyrical aria lamenting his fate. The aria had another rather interesting violin part, and the evocative vocal line did rather remind me of a number of other Handel arias in a similar vein. Admeto was one of the most popular Handel arias of his Royal Academy period.

The orchestra followed with the remaining movements from Corelli's Christmas Concerto. A lively dialogue between soloists and orchestra, full of rhythmic vitality, leading to the delightful pastoral finale which gives the concerto its title.

The single most famous scene in an Ariosti opera was the prison scene, Spiritate, o iniqui marmi... Voi d'un figlio from Ariosti's Coriolano, premiered by the Royal Academy in 1723 and described by David Vickers in the pre-concert talk as the Gladiator of its day. Again we had a dramatic accompagnato leading to a melodic aria (highlighting Senesino's skill with the pathetic). The introduction included two independent bassoon parts and the resulting textures were richly and interesting. A wonderfully effective movement, the accompagnato did not feel as gut wrenching as some of Handel's similar movements. The aria, a melodic piece in triple time, was full of melodic felicity and very affecting with some vivid passage-work in the B section. In the pre-concert talk Zazzo had highlighted the problem of playing such arias on their own; when we listened to it we lacked the build up from the earlier parts of the opera that the original audience benefited from.

Next came another short instrumental piece from Handel's Admeto, the Sinfonia della cacciatore which, as its name implies, had prominent parts for two horns. The horns stayed for the next piece, the aria Torrente che scende from Bononcini's Crispo. It was rather a dramatic aria which at times felt almost light an accompagnato. Zazzo's vocal line was dramatic but also full of fast passages creating an intriguing mixture.

The programme ended with a pair of items from Handel's Admeto. First the orchestral Sinfonia della furie with its furiously busy textures and then Vivi tiranno. This aria was added for a revival of the opera, to give the hero Betarido a bravura showpiece aria. And Zazzo certainly did the bravura, making the A section brilliantly martial, with a contrasting pathetic B section.

The evening was a fascinating compare and contrast, giving us the opportunity to hear Handel performed alongside his competitors. In the pre-concert talk Zazzo and Bates talked of how they had tried to choose arias which did not simply make Bononcini and Ariosti sound like bad Handel. in fact both Zazzo and La Nuova Musica gave us some stunning performances, and I for one want to hear more. Thankfully, Zazzo,Bates and the orchestra are recording a disc of the repertoire.

The audience reaction was rightly very enthusiastic and we were treated to a substantial encore. Zazzo said that they felt that the programme had slightly short changed Ariosti so we were treated to the first of Ariosti's 1724 collection of Cantatas, which were dedicated to George I.
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