Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Vivica Genaux & Sonia Prina recreate the music sung by two great castratos at the Wigmore Hall

Senesino & Farinelli
Senesino & Farinelli
Handel, Bononcini, Hasse, Porpora, Giacomelli, Ariosti, Torri, Gasparini, Lotti; Sonia Prina, Vivica Genaux, Concerto Copenhagen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 May 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Rare repertoire in a concert focused on Senesino and Farinelli

Take pair of star singers, a distinguished early music group and a programme of Baroque arias and you usually have a standard recipe for a quick canter through some good old favourites. But clearly Sonia Prina, Vivica Genaux and Concerto Copenhagen, director Lars Ulrik Mortensen thought rather differently about programming as their concert at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 1 May 2018 was full of unusual delights with music by Handel, or course, but also Porpora, Giacomelli, Bononcini, Ariosti, Hasse, Lotti, Torri and Gasparini. Whilst there were familiar items, many were completely unfamiliar; the link between them all was the pairing of the star castratos Farinelli and Senesino.

Senesino sang around 18 roles for Handel,as well as appearing in other composer's works during the London seasons. The rather younger Farinelli managed to avoid performing Handel's company (it rather seems deliberate, there are tales of him keeping Handel waiting), and when he did come to London to sing for a rival company the results were a sensation.

The programme concentrated mainly on the 1720s with operas the two could have sung in London but many have disappeared into the mists of time. Who has now heard of Porpora's Eliza, Giacomelli's Scipione in Cartagine Nuova and Gianuir, Bononcini's Astarte, Ariosti's Vespasioano,  Hasse's Siroe re di Persio, Lotti's Ascanio and Giove in Argo, Torri's Nicomede and Gasparini's Eumene, but there was certainly plenty of music worth exploring.


Vivica Genaux sang arias written for Farinelli whilst Sonia Prina sang those written for Senesino. Familiar items from Prina included 'Piu d'una tigre altero' from Handel's Tamerlano and 'Venti, turbini prestate' from Rinaldo (Senesino sang in a revival of this). This was music written off to show the voice, and even the more lyrical items constructed as relatively simple arias, had vocal lines which were full of extra notes. Few composers seemed to have the daring to write a simple tune, the way Handel would occasionally (and Senesino would, of course object). The important thing to remember is that the singers got what they wanted, usually, so that arias for Farinelli were particularly full of notes. Whilst Sonia Prina ended by singing 'Venti turbini prestate' with its cascades of notes, Vivica Genaux seemed to go one further by ending with Torri's 'Vo che in mezzo del fuore' from Nicomede which managed to turned a fast aria with lots of passagework into almost a spectator sport; so spectacular were the vocal pyrotechnics that you rather forgot about the music.

The two singers also duetted, something that Farinelli and Senesino never did, but it gave us a chance to hear a wider variety of music from these operas. The orchestra contributed four overtures, two were familiar, from Handel's Rinaldo and Tamerlano, and two were not, Ariosti's Vespasiano and Lotti's Ascanio. In fine performances from Mortensen and his band, the Ariosti and the Lotti really made me curious about the rest of the operas, as a good overture should.

Both singers are highly physical beings, expressing through vocalism and a great deal of physical movement. This was a very vivid evening, with lots of deeply expressive singing, though each singer has a very distinctive style which goes far beyond period performance. Occasionally in arias of the simpler sort such as those by Bononcini, you rather wished for a bit less intervention and a bit more simplicity of line. Clearly both singers (and Lars Ulrik Mortensen) were having a whale of a time on stage, and  there is no doubt that the singers made a vivid evening of what might have been a rather dull exercise in academic revival.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Welcome to the Magical Garden or perhaps the Garden of Magic: the piano music of Robert Saxton (★★★★) - CD review
  • Philip Venables' 4:48 Psychosis returns (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Thrilling revival: Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Covent Garden (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • Striking double in Clapham: Shadwell Opera debuts a new work with powerful Janacek song-cycle (★★★½) - opera review
  • Music from Handel's London Theatre Orchestra (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Passio: from Tallis & Purcell to Kevin Hartnett via Bach (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the parlour and into the recital room - Hubert Parry's English lyrics (★★★★)  -  CD review
  • Beethoven unbound and Schubert cycles, I chat to Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams - interview
  • Bernstein, Debussy, Parry, Smyth, Bridge, Boulanger, Owen - BBC Proms 2018 - preview
  • What an unalloyed joy! And if all this isn’t advert enough for some sensible funding I don’t know what is (★★★★) - concert review
  • Songs of Vain Glory: Sophie Bevan & Sebastian Wybrew (★★★★) - CD review
  • William Billings to contemporary Icelandic & Finnish music: Skylark's Seven Words on the Cross (★★★) - CD review
  • Missa Tulerunt Dominum Meum: Siglo de Oro (★★★★★) - CD review
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