Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is not frequently performed these days, and yet not two months have passed since I reported on the last London performance, by the Classical Opera Company at King’s Place. I was rather concerned that reviewing two accounts of the same piece in such quick succession might be rather too much of a good thing. But from the first notes of the opening sonata del overtura it was clear that this concert at the Wigmore Hall by the Early Opera Company, under its founder and musical director Christian Curnyn, was going to be a performance of an altogether warmer character, despite a marginally smaller instrumental ensemble – reflective perhaps of the different venue. The voices were richer and the singers more assured; crowded together on the tiny platform of the Wigmore Hall, the sound seemed to burst forth as if from an epicentre.
Curnyn’s approach to the score was vibrantly energetic and taut of rhythm, pushing through the mid-tempo arias such as ‘Lascia la spina’ without a great deal of breathing space, and saving relaxation exclusively for only the slowest arias – notably, Bellezza’s ‘Io sperai trovar il vero’. This approach served to highlight those chosen few arias as particular jewels, allowing them to unfold organically. The instrumental texture was not always flawless – there was the odd moment of messy solo violin playing from the otherwise excellent leader Catherine Martin, and a bum note or two from the oboes – but flawless so often equates to boring. This performance was anything but that.
The Bellezza was Lucy Crowe, and it was her presence which really made the performance exceptional – so it was fortunate that she was there in the first place, having replaced the double-booked Rosemary Joshua (I suppose we should thank Kate Royal for pulling out of Covent Garden’s Rake’s Progress to have a baby, leaving a Rosemary Joshua-shaped space). Crowe’s vocal timbre is very different from Joshua’s, and I cannot imagine that Joshua’s voice would have so perfectly complemented the soft-grained tone of the oboes (a very different oboe sound from the piercing focus of those I heard at King’s Place). Crowe’s sound was always radiant, from the self-indulgent gleam of ‘Fido specchio’ to the soul-searching lament of ‘Io sperai’ (easily the vocal highlight of the evening). Even in the throes of the role’s most spitfire coloratura (‘Un pensiero nemico di pace’) she had no difficulty in maintaining a rich and characterful tone while navigating the semiquavers.
In my Classical Opera Company review I complained that their Bellezza, Rebecca Bottone, had done the piece no favours by dressing so soberly as to blend into the background and avoid standing out visually. I can level no such criticism at Crowe, who has the advantage of being naturally blessed with the blonde tresses to which the text refers, which she wore in cascading waves atop a black and white gown that was both showy and subtle.
Of the four roles, Piacere arguably requires the most versatile and consistent singer. Anna Stéphany’s high mezzo has a beautiful velvety quality, as seductive as you could wish for. Sometimes I wished Curnyn would indulge her just a little, tempo-wise, to allow her to make more of her slower arias. Only ‘Come nembo che fugge col vento’ was a little disappointing - her voice has filled out in recent years, and she doesn’t quite have the extraordinary coloratura facility required for this blistering aria, even at the comparatively restrained pace at which Curnyn took it.
I commented last time that the tenor and alto playing Tempo and Disinganno have an inherently tough job in convincingly winning over Bellezza from the far more overtly musically-alluring Piacere, and that to counter this disadvantage the casting in these lower roles benefits from being even stronger than that of the higher voices. In this respect the Early Opera Company, though still falling short of the mark, came a good deal closer than the Classical Opera Company before them – the quartet, ‘Se non sei più ministro di pene’, demonstrated the line-up of singers to be more than well-matched.
As Tempo, Andrew Staples’s phrasing was easy and unforced, while the light and straightforward tone of his tenor gave an apt impression of sincerity. And if Hilary Summers’s low alto has a tendency to sound a little hollow in the middle of the voice, it was worth it for the pleasing security and firmness of tone at the lowest depths of Disinganno’s arias, such as the sustained phrases of ‘Più non cura valle oscura’ and the violent melodic depiction of Bellezza’s mirror tumbling to the ground in ‘Chi già fu del biondo crine’.
In the spring of 2005 I heard three of this evening’s soloists vying for first place in the final stages of the Kathleen Ferrier Awards (or rather, Lucy Crowe and Anna Stéphany were vying for first place – they were streets ahead of the other finalists including Andrew Staples, who at the time was a less ‘finished’ performer and never really in the running). Then, Stéphany – after finding herself on the back foot at the end of the semi-final – made a comeback at the final stage, giving a faultless performance and outsinging her rival who made a few minor slips in her final recital programme. Five years on, and they both remain fine singers, but in this repertoire Crowe reigns supreme. Time and Enlightenment notwithstanding, tonight the triumph belonged to Beauty.