Friday 6 April 2018

From wronged women to pastoral delight: Handel's Italian cantatas at Wigmore Hall

Francesco Maria Marescotti Ruspoli, first prince of Cerveteri for whom Handel wrote Aminta e Fillide
Francesco Ruspoli, first prince of Cerveteri
for whom Handel wrote Aminta e Fillide
Handel Italian cantatas; Sabine Devieilhe, Lea Desandra, Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert d'Astrée; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 Apr 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Three of Handel's Italian cantatas in sparkingly engaging performances

Handel's Italian cantatas do not always get the attention that they deserve; written for aristocratic patrons, Handel used the cantatas as a testing ground for ideas which would develop in his operas. and in fact, throughout his career, he mined the cantatas for music to re-use. So it was a delight to find Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée performing a programme of three cantatas at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 5 April 2018, with soprano Sabine Devieilhe and mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre (replacing Marianne Crebassa). Though not part of the London Handel Festival, this programme appeared slap-bang in the middle of it, giving Handel lovers an extra treat.

Haïm used an ensemble of six, two violins, cello and double bass plus Haïm herself on harpsichord and Thomas Dunford on the lute. The use of the double bass in the texture provided an added resonance to the bass line and, combined with Haïm's trademark lively approach to playing Handel, helped create a very distinctive and rich sound.

The works performed all came from Handel's Italian period. In the first half two cantatas involving tragic women, Dietro l'orme fuggaci (Armida abbandonata) HWV105 and O numi eterni (La Lucrezia) HWV145 separated by the Trio Sonata in B minor OP.2 No. 1 HWV386b, not published until 1730 but probably dating from 1717-18. In the second half we went all pastoral, with a performance of Arresta il passio (Aminta e Fillide) HWV83 which is effectively a serenata. Written for Marchese Ruspoli's Arcadian Academy, it was probably first performed in Ruspoli's garden in 1708.

Armida abandonata plunged straight in, and Sabine Devielhe demonstrated a wonderful combination of light focused tone, fine line and superb intensity, she articulated Armida's fate both musically and visually developing some real edge of the seat drama and ending with the bleakly beautiful Siciliana. Her Da Capo ornamentation was quite elaborate, but she did rather have the habit of adding extra high notes. Lea Desandre was more measured, singing with a plangent mezzo-soprano and giving a strong sense of control and suppressed anger. Her performance moved from bleak suffering to a determinedly fierce ending, via the remarkable fluid scena where Handel abandons conventional structure for something which showed the fluctuations in Lucrezia's mental state. The Trio Sonata provided fine punctuation between the two items, and Haïm and her players brought out the dance elements in the movements.

Aminta e Fillide is full of familiar material because Handel re-used the overture and some of the arias in Rinaldo and Agrippina. Whilst writing the cantata, with its 10 arias and concluding duet, he was clearly on form and produced a dazzling array of different takes on the standard forms with some gorgeous textures and an imaginative use of pastoral-type country dance tunefulness. No wonder he wanted to use the material again!

The plot is less riveting, Aminta (Sabine Devieilhe) loves Fillide (Lea Desandre) but though he is intense and passionate, she is disdainful and uninterested, passion is not for her. Things change, and gradually she succumbs. Whilst Deasandre melted beautifully, moving from disdain to delight, the plot is frankly less than engrossing and Metastasio's text a bit stylised for modern tast. It was the involving performances both from Devielhe and Desandre, as well as Haïm and her ensemble that held our attention.

Handel wrote around 28 cantatas in all, varying from the small scale continuo cantatas to the larger, serenata-like pieces. We don't hear enough of them, and this programme gave us three of the best known. Perhaps exploring the lesser known ones might make a nice series at the Wigmore Hall?

This was quite a particular performance style, a very personal take on Handel, yet the cantatas are small scale, personal things which allow performers to bring a great sense of personality. Whilst I did hear a couple of dissenting voices at the interval, the audience was by and large delighted and we were treated to two encores, the concluding duets from Handel's Ariodante and Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Mr Handel's Vauxhall Pleasures at the London Handel Festival (★★★★½) - concert review
  • This brand-new production of Verdi’s Falstaff proves how strong the subject-matter is and how highly entertaining the opera (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Planet Hugill’s roving music correspondent, Tony Cooper, reports on Berlin’s Festtage (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity, Energy and Poise: Bach's St John Passion at the Holy Week Festival (★★★★½)   - concert review
  • Atmosphere at the expense of text: Wednesday at St John's Holy Week Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • Challenging the traditional concert format: I chat to pianist Alexandra Dariescu about Nutcrackers, creative entrepreneurs and women composers  - interview
  • A very humane comedy: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Jolly Good Show! - Charles Court Opera's The Mikado (★★★★)  - opera review
  • The Guardian Angel: voices and violin in concert (★★★★) - concert review
  • Fire and water: Ji Liu  (★★★) - CD review
  • En Francais: Verdi's original Don Carlos in Lyon (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Electronic opera: Roger Doyle's Heresy (★★★) - CD review
  • Moving, thoughtful, thought-provoking - Christoph Prégardien, Julia Kleiter and Julius Drake at Temple Song (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Exploring her heritage: Rebeca Omordia introduces the Nigerian art music which features on her new CD - Interview
  • Real discoveries: the songs of Nikolai Medtner (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Gluepot Connection - 20th century British composers linked by their watering-hole - CD review
  • A sense of intelligent conversation: John Jenkins complete four-part consort music (★★★★★) - CD review
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