Friday 14 October 2022

Up close and personal with Farinelli: A Queer Georgian Social Season at Burgh House

Farinelli: Operatic Castrato Sensation, Leo, Porpora, Hasse, Broschi; Maria Ostroukhova, Richard Energy, Les Bougies Baroques, Ian Peter Bugeja; A Queer Georgian Social Season at Burgh House
Reviewed 13 October 2022

Dazzling vocal pyrotechnics, and period instruments alongside a very 21st-century drag king in this wonderful reinterpretation of Farinelli's life and times

In the LGBT lexicon, 'queer' can be defined as anyone who does not fit society's standards of gender and sexuality; so, someone might be unhappy with the specificity of labels such as lesbian, gay or bisexual but happy to identify as queer. During the 18th century the word simply meant oddity, but in all senses of the word, witness the well-known quote 'All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer'

So, A Queer Georgian Social Season, co-founded by Ian Peter Bugeja's period-instrument ensemble Les Bougies Baroques and Burgh House, director Mark Francis-Vasey, aims to do far more than leaven performances of 18th-century music with a bit of campery. The season looks at 18th-century moeurs and music through a modern lens, enabling us to consider the significant roles played in 18th-century Society by those who did not conform to norms, 'the wrong sort of people'. It enables us to remember or discover how 18th-century artistic society was often based around those who failed to fit in with the social conventions.

On Thursday 13 October 2022, the latest event in A Queer Georgian Social Season was Farinelli: Operatic Castrato Sensation at Burgh House, Hampstead when Ian Peter Bugeja and Les Bougies Baroques were joined by mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova and drag king Richard Energy for a salon that featured music by Leonardo Leo, Niccolo Porpora, Johann Adolph Hasse and Riccardo Broschi, alongside discussion, drinks and socialising.

Much of 18th-century music-making was domestic in origin, taking place in front rooms, drawing rooms and grander aristocratic salons. Any large-scale event, like an opera performance, could be surrounded by smaller private events where singers and musicians would entertain patrons, privileging them for their significant support of the enterprise. And away from the opera season, such musical events would continue, enabling those who were not able to attend the large musical performances to hear the music anyway.

The Music Room at Burgh House is on the small size for a grand salon, but we successfully fitted in an audience, Les Bougies Baroques (Ian Peter Bugeja, harpsichord, Maxim del Mar and Abel Balazs, violins, Thomas Kettle, viola, Jacob Garside, cello, Rosie Moon, double bass, James Bramley, theorbo), Richard Energy and Maria Ostroukhova. This was music-making that was completely immersive, with audience members almost literally at Ostroukhova's feet. Thus, we gained in intimacy and immediacy sometimes at the expense of ensemble; Les Bougies Baroques did not have the luxury of optimum placement of the instrumentalists so that they could easily communicate with Bugeja, who directed from the harpsichord.

The results were vividly engaging thanks to the high level of individual instrumental playing, the ensemble's sense of commitment and vibrancy, and the sheer bravura of Ostroukhova's singing. We heard four arias, all written specifically for Farinelli by men who knew his voice intimately, his teacher Niccolo Porpora and his brother Riccardo Broschi.

'In braccio a mille furie' from Porpora's Semiramide Riconosciuta (1729) had a vividly busy orchestral contribution (one of Porpora's trademarks) over which Ostroukhova spun crazy, non-stop virtuosity. One of her many virtues was the way her bravura singing had a lovely warmth, tone and flexibility to it. We didn't just admire the technical thrill but the musicality too. 'Si pietoso il tuo labbro' was a slower number from the same opera, featuring a gentle vocal line over a moving bass, but the vocals were anything but simple as Ostroukhova elegantly folded elaborations into the basic line.

The last aria by Porpora, 'Alto Giove' came from Polifemo (1735) and was similar in style, a vocal line unfolding over atmospheric strings, the voice gradually growing in elaboration though always with an intimate expressivity. The final aria was Riccardo Broschi's 'Son qual nave' from Artaserse (1734), a work where the composer was effectively saying look at what my kid brother can do! In between these we heard Leonardo Leo's Sinfonia in A major and Johann Adolph Hasse's Sinfonia in G minor, moments for the instrumentalists, particularly the violins, to show off.

There was also talk. Drag king Richard Energy (who usually does comedy in modern dress) was in a wonderfully elaborate 18th-century outfit (complete with wig and feathers) as Farinelli. Dialogue between Energy's Farinelli and Ian Peter Bugeja took us through the singer's life and times, from that operation, to fame, to his periods in London and in Spain. The two ensured that chat was both informative and entertaining, a delightful way to illuminate this crazy music.

The audience included those entering into the spirit, one very much a bearded 18th-century lady, another a gentleman in full wig and costume, not to forget the man in the smart leather corset. It is easy to forget how non-conforming and 'other' castratos were; their fascination arose both from their musical skill, their incredible voices and their sheer difference. Farinelli: Operatic Castrato Sensation gave us a chance to appreciate this through a very 21st-century lense.But the fun would not have worked without the fine musicality of Maria Ostroukhova and Les Bougies Baroques.

A Queer Georgian Social Season runs until February 2023 with monthly events including Queera Lynn as Anne Lister: A Queer Georgian Cabaret [EventBrite], A Fabulously Queer (& Secular) Georgian Yuletide Celebration [EventBrite] and The Grand Finale: A Queer Georgian Drag Ball [EventBrite].

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