Friday 31 March 2023

Handel in Rome: Nardus Williams and the Dunedin Consort at Wigmore Hall

Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome, built by Benedetto Pamphili's father
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome, built by Cardinal Pamphili's father
with interiors partly created by Cardinal Pamphili 

Handel in Rome - Handel: Overture to Admeto, Ero e Leandro, Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 6, Tra le fiamme, arias from Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and La Resurrezione; Nardus Williams, Dunedin Consort, Matthew Truscott; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 30 March 2023

The Dunedin Consort takes us to the homo-erotically charged, hothouse atmosphere of Handel's Rome in 1707 and 1708

The Dunedin Consort's Handel in Rome programme has been touring to Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, with Saffron Walden to come tonight. It was planned to feature Benjamin Bayl's debut directing the ensemble, but as it turned out that was not to be. So, on Thursday 30 March 2023, we caught the Dunedin Consort at Wigmore Hall in Handel in Rome, with soprano Nardus Williams, directed from the violin by Matthew Truscott (the ensemble's leader since 2021), with Stephen Farr on harpsichord.

The programme featured two of Handel's cantatas from his Italian period, Ero e Leandro and Tra le fiamme, plus arias from his two Italian oratorios, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and La Resurrezione, and two later instrumental works, the overture from Admeto and the Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No.6.

The libretto to Ero e Leandro was probably written by Pietro Ottoboni, Italian cardinal and grandnephew of Pope Alexander VIII. Cardinal Ottoboni was a great patron and lover of the arts and supported composer/violinist Arcangelo Corelli who played at the Cardinal's Monday night concerts. It would be Corelli's Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 that inspired Handel's set of the same opus number, and Handel and Corelli met during Handel's Roman period. The libretto to Tra le fiamme was written by another Cardinal, Benedetto Pamphili, who also wrote the libretto to Handel's oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. Pamphili would also write the text for a cantata that compared Handel directly to Orpheus. Whilst in Tra le fiamme the use of the viola da gamba (here signifying the Phoenix) heightens the cantata's sense allegory about the dangers of falling in love with music.

In her book Handel as Orpheus, Ellen T. Harris has convincingly argued for the somewhat licentious atmosphere surrounding these Roman cardinals, and for the distinctly homo-erotic atmosphere of the texts (not just the cantatas, but in Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno too). It is notable that when Handel re-performed some of these cantatas in London in later life, the texts were toned down. So, we can imagine this music performed not in the context of some polite academy, but in an atmosphere somewhat more sexually charged. Charles Jennens preserved an anecdote in which Handel in later life referred to Cardinal Pamphili as an old fool because he flattered Handel so.

To add to this hothouse atmosphere, one of Cardinal Ottoboni's 'constant companions' was the castrato Andrea Adamo, so we can perhaps imagine Ero e Leandro being written for, and sung by, him.

We began, however in the London of 1726 with the overture to Handel's Admeto (the retelling of the Alceste story) with the overture consisting of a sinfonia and Ballo de Larve, a recreation of the demons dancing that the fevered Admeto sees in his dreams. Grand and stylised at first, with some lovely oboe playing, the busy scurrying of the faster section seemed to take a moment to settle, whilst the Ballo de Larve featured strong contrasts in both volume and texture. Not Handel in Rome, then, but certainly a striking way to begin.

Next came Ero e Leandro, which begins with Hero seeing Leander's body. We plunged straight in, a dramatic recitative leading to quite a fierce aria with solo violin. Williams brought great strength to the aria with a lovely contrast in the middle section. A tender recitative led to the highly emotional second aria, and another touching recitative was followed by the third, slow, expressive yet rather bleak aria, where Ero is singing about her wish for death, and the final section remains bleak. Throughout, Williams projected a strong identification with the heroine, bringing a dramatic element to the virtuosic writing,

The first half ended with the aria 'Tu del ciel ministro eletto' from Il trionfo, featuring Williams' poised, beautifully spun solo line and Truscott's matching violin solo; fine singing, and great control.

Part two opened with Handel's tribute to Corelli with his six Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. The sixth one opened with a slow movement full of strong contrasts, then quite a steady movement with strong lines. The central musette, so named because of the bagpipe-like drones in the bass, had a remarkably rich orchestral texture thanks to the said drones, but with lovely contrasting solo moments. An Allegro so vigorous that it fooled the audience into thinking we had reached the end, was followed by an elegantly pointed final movement.

Tra le fiamme is one of Handel's best-known Italian cantatas, not only does it have a memorable opening aria, but you get to hear it twice (it returns at the end), and we have a solo viola da gamba. The instrument was often associated with death and resurrection (pace Bach's passions), but here represents the phoenix. Williams and gambist Allison McGillivray duetted finely in the opening aria, creating music that was fast and mobile. An eager recitative led to an aria where perky strings contrasted with William's eagerly engaging performance. The third aria was busy yet characterful, with Williams despatching her runs with style, and then of course our ending was in our beginning.

Perhaps because we had the gamba on stage, we ended on a rather downbeat note with Mary Magdalene's aria from La Resurrezione, 'Per me gia di morire' complete with solo gamba and a wonderful plangent sonority of viola da gamba, oboe and recorder. Williams' solo line was beautifully floated, yet very present.  There was an encore, an aria from Handel's Aminta e Fillide.

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