Thursday 19 October 2023

Pastoral charm with an engaging sense of style: Handel's Clori, Tirsi e Fileno from the English Concert at Wigmore Hall

Handel: Clori, Tirsi e Fileno - Joélle Harvey, Ailish Tynan, Iestyn Davies, the English Concert, Harry Bicket - Wigmore Hall
Handel: Clori, Tirsi e Fileno - Joélle Harvey, Ailish Tynan, Iestyn Davies, the English Concert, Harry Bicket - Wigmore Hall (image taken from the live stream)

Handel: Clori, Tirsi e Fileno; Ailish Tynan, Joélle Harvey, Iestyn Davies, the English Concert, Harry Bicket; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 18 October 2023

A light-hearted pastoral cantata performed with engaging charm and great sense of style with Handel's imaginative orchestration played with relish

Handel's Italian cantatas remain slightly tantalising. We have a passing familiarity with them, some at least get regular outings, but also Handel used his Italian cantatas as source material for larger, operatic works. His first London opera, Rinaldo is full of such borrowings and Handel wasn't the only one, this sort of practice was common in the Baroque period. We also know quite a lot of technical information about the cantatas, the watermarks of the paper they were written on can be used to estimate when he composed them, and the surviving account books of his patrons give us information about when the music was copied. But still, they remain at one remove.

We know that Clori, Tirsi e Fileno was written in 1707 for Marchese Ruspoli, because the copyists bill survives. But that is it. Until the 1960s, we did not even have a full copy of the score till one turned up in Münster. We can't be completely certain how the Münster version relates to that performed in 1707, but it has a more generous final trio than the original and commentators now think it is linked to the wedding celebrations in Naples that Handel attended (and for which he wrote the dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo). The Münster comes from a collection created by a Roman priest, Fortunato Santini (1777-1861) who, during the early 19th century, had access to private archives held by the Roman nobility, like the Ruspoli family. 

At the time of the cantata's first performance in Rome, opera was banned in Rome, so Roman patrons such as Ruspoli (for whom Handel was almost a house composer for a time) used other means. Clori, Tirsi e Fileno is a pastoral cantata that is almost an opera, and certainly the work has been staged in modern times. But Ruspoli was also a member of the Accademia degli Arcadi, the Arcadian Academy, and such pastoral works as Clori, Tirsi e Fileno were part of the Academy's raison d'etre.

The English Concert, conductor Harry Bicket, returned to Wigmore Hall on 18 October 2023 for a performance of Clori, Tirsi e Fileno  with Ailish Tynan as Clori, Joélle Harvey (replacing Mary Bevan) as Tirsi and Iestyn Davies as Fileno. The work offers a simple pastoral narrative for three characters, the fickle Clori toys with her two lovers, Tirsi and Fileno, who go through all the permutations of desire, hope and despair before they eventually abandon her when they discover her duplicity, and in fact more than one modern staging has had the two male characters going off together at the end. A homo-social view of the work that can arguably be linked to the remarkably homo-social atmosphere created by Handel's patrons in Rome. Handel himself seems to have been remarkably adept at adapting himself to his patron's mores and matching their wishes and desires.

A full platform featured an orchestra of eleven strings, led by Nadja Zwiener, two oboes/recorders, bassoon, theorbo and harpsichord, directed by Harry Bicket from a second harpsichord. They made a good strong sound in an overture that rather than having a slow movement, then a fast one, had sections alternating between stately dance and nervous energy.

We began with a solo scene for Tirsi (Joélle Harvey), lamenting that his beloved Clori was not faithful though he vows to be constant, with first an elegantly expressive aria that showed of Harvey's lovely plangent tones, and Harvey made Tirsi an engaging character. Then a second which went at an engaging lilt, with a lovely delicacy to it; this aria was a simile aria and the anonymous libretto relies rather too heavily on these. Tirsi then absents himself to overhear Clori.

The remainder of the first act is devoted to Clori (Ailish Tynan) and Fileno (Iestyn Davies). She introduced in an aria with an engaging lilt, sung by Tynan with great charm and character, but also remarkable depth of tone, this was no soubrette. Fileno laments that Clori loves Tirisi, and Davies brought great lyrical beauty to his aria (another simile) with its rich accompaniment. And certainly, Davies brought out a lovely sulky feel to Fileno's character. Clori manages to convince Fileno of her love. First a perkily characterful aria for Tynan, then an appealing aria for Davies where he described himself as a storm crossed sailor coming into harbour. The aria is appealing, not as vigorous as the words might lead you to expect, and with prominent viola parts.

Part one ended with a toe tapping, joyous duet for Tynan and Davies, except that we know Tirsi had been listening, and Harvey had a tiny line at the end of the preceding recitative to emphasise this.

Part two opened with fireworks, a vivid, angry duet for Tynan and Harvey full of bravura moments, Harvey's subsequent aria was the first really bravura solo in the piece, a terrific aria with Harvey on top form, duetting with the oboe. Clori's response to Tirsi's anger is to claim she is true, with a vivid aria for Tynan full of busy passagework, but also a substantial violin solo that interrupted the vocal line.  In a gently lyric aria for Tynan, Clori says she loves Tirsi and only pretends with Fileno.

But Fileno has been listening, and Davies responded with a gorgeous aria that combined lyric melancholy with substantial cello part, and where Davies used the Da Capo repeat to intensify the emotions. The two men came to accept that Clori is changeable, and Harvey's Tirsi had a charming aria, elegantly sung, about the expressiveness of little sighs! Davies' Fileno had a similarly charming aria, engagingly sung but here Handel's orchestration was wonderfully imaginative with substantial lute (continuo) part, with just a violin added. We ended with a busy trio, where the three expounded on the changeability of love.

Clori, Tirsi e Fileno is a charming work, light and amusing without any pretension to depth, yet full of music that is highly imaginative with the young Handel working his magic in a variety of ways. The three singers, Ailish Tynan, Joélle Harvey, and Iestyn Davies really captured the three characters and brought a lovely sense of light drama to the work. Recitatives were all expressively sung, with every word relished (diction and expressivity of word was exceptional throughout) though the picky part of my brain would have liked the recitatives to have been less stately, and more perkiness of speed.

The orchestra may have been slightly bigger than Ruspoli's, you could imagine doing the work with just one string instrument per line, but the English Concert made a lovely rich sound throughout and the individual players relished the varied opportunities that Handel gave them. This was a score full of imaginative touches, vividly and stylishly played.

The concert was streamed by the Wigmore Hall (on YouTube), if you watch it then please make a donation.

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