Fresh from the success of their recently released album Handel Duets, this sold-out concert at the Wigmore Hall showcased the remarkable talents of two of Britain’s foremost Handelian singers – soprano Rosemary Joshua and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, together with their equally praiseworthy collaborators from the CD recording; conductor Harry Bicket and the period instrument ensemble The English Concert.
This all-Handel programme included a well-chosen selection of seven duets from the new album interspersed with several solo arias and orchestral pieces. Concentrating on six of Handel’s operas and oratorios, we were presented with music from Agrippina, Ariodante, Solomon, Theodora, Sosarme and Giulio Cesare with just the right balance struck between the contrasting moods of the solemn or sorrowful numbers and the more joyful or upbeat.
I should start by commenting on the truly superlative orchestral playing from Bicket (who led from the harpsichord) and the English Concert, who kicked off the programme with a stylish and spirited rendition of the overture from Agrippina, displaying quite astonishing precision and a pleasing contrast in dynamics. The strings really attacked the piece with passion and brio and were a true delight to listen to. It is perhaps unfortunate that the small platform space of the Wigmore Hall necessitates the orchestra to be in such extreme close proximity to the singers, as there were a couple of occasions when the sound balance suffered as a result and the band was in danger of drowning out some of the quieter vocal moments, particularly in the lower-lying passages of Ms Connolly’s sensitively sung first aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” from Agrippina. Fortunately the sound balance was rectified fairly promptly afterwards but one wonders if fourteen string players were perhaps a few too many for such an intimate venue.
Those readers lucky enough to have caught Ms Connolly’s dazzling performance as the power-hungry, bitchy Agrippina in ENO’s hilariously brilliant production in 2007 will already know how perfectly this role suits her rich versatile mezzo, and the slow opening section of this aria gave her the chance to show off some meticulously controlled crescendos as she spun out legato lines of remarkable beauty and breath control in her duet with the oboe. Switching to the role of Ottone in that same opera, Ms Connolly was then joined by Ms Joshua as Poppea for the duet “No, no, ch’io non apprezzo”,which was sung with great expression and a perfect blending of the two voices; Ms Joshua’s pure and almost permanently bright timbre contrasting gracefully with Ms Connolly’s darker, velvety tones. Though Ms Joshua was unable to equal Ms Connolly in terms of variety of vocal colour, these two artists are ideally suited as duet partners and displayed an extraordinary togetherness (particularly in their joint cadenzas) throughout the course of the evening.
Moving on to Ariodante, Ms Joshua’s first solo offering was the aria “Il mio crudel martoro” – one of Handel’s most depressing outpourings of misery in which the falsely accused heroine Ginevra sings of her longing for death. This melancholy lament in E minor is marked larghetto in the score and can easily drag on for over ten minutes, but here it was taken at a slightly livelier tempo which I personally felt lessened its tragic grandeur somewhat. Ms Joshua’s heartfelt singing included an ascent up to an exquisitely floated unwritten top B on “Morte, dove sei tu?” during the da capo. Personally, I would have been in Handel heaven if Ms Connolly had also honoured us with “Scherza, infida”, but I suppose two long suicidal arias in one concert would have been overkill - no pun intended. Instead we got the ballet music from Ariodante, followed by Ms Connolly’s exuberant “Dopo notte” - a tour de force display of impeccable coloratura virtuosity that left me awestruck at her technique and breath control. Not only did her runs seem totally effortless but she carried off the piece with vitality and panache; gracefully touching the repeated high As before cascading down again as if it were the easiest thing in the world. My companion described it afterwards as “a masterclass in bel canto singing” and I would have to agree with him. The first half of the concert ended on a metaphorical high note with the joyful duet “Bramo haver mille vite” (also from Ariodante) where both singers again blended perfectly and unleashed a rapid volley of wonderfully even and accurate triplets.
A rousing and energetically played Sinfonia from Act III of Solomon (more famously known as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba) got the second half off to a cracking start, followed by Ms Joshua’s very polished rendition of “Will the sun forget to streak” with superb diction throughout. Staying with Solomon, the duet “Welcome as the dawn of day” was vibrant and charming with almost every word of the text coming across clearly and a real connection between the two soloists.
Moving on to the oratorio Theodora, we were treated to four extracts from this piece, beginning with Ms Connolly’s very refined interpretation of “As with rosy steps the morn” which was sung with a stately elegance and an admirable variety of tonal colour, including some sensitive, soft mezza voce singing during the repeat of the A section. The duet “To thee, thou glorious son of worth” was quite breathtaking in its poignant beauty and the sensitive artistry displayed by both singers; truly exquisite, it was definitely one of the highlights of the evening. Ms Joshua’s “When sunk in anguish and despair” was sung with great feeling and purity of tone, and again the soprano proved herself an excellent communicator of the text. The last item from Theodora was the duet “Streams of pleasure ever flowing” which was executed with great sophistication and attention to detail of phrasing and dynamics.
The final item on the programme was officially the vibrant duet “Per le porte del tormento” from Sosarme, which certainly helped lighten the mood after the serious atmosphere evoked by the Theodora. An utter delight from start to finish; Ms Joshua’s lilting soprano soared effortlessly on the upper line, perfectly complemented by Ms Connolly’s luxurious golden mezzo below – and as always that extraordinary symmetry, sensitivity and impeccable blending of tone which made this musical partnership so special. By the end of the evening they had quite rightly brought the house down and finished the concert with an encore; “We’d like to sing a song by........er......Handel”, Sarah Connolly announced, to much amusement. As I had correctly predicted earlier, the encore was the jubilant final duet from Giulio Cesare ”Caro! Bella!” which was executed with great flair and some imaginative da capo ornamentation. All in all a truly superb concert that just flew by and left me wishing for more.