I was privileged to hear my first performance of Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula at the Wigmore Hall on 7th March in the very capable hands of the Retrospect Ensemble, directed from the harpsichord by Matthew Halls. I am gradually becoming a discerning audience member for opera seria and have seen barn-storming operas by Vinci and Hasse and some of Handel’s greatest hits. You begin to get the hang of the genre after a while: boy meets girl/meets sorceress. Boy 1 fancies girl something awful. Sorceress fancies boy 1 something terrible. Boy 2 fancies girl almost as much. Sorceress is in cahoots with boy 2 to thwart the romance between boy 1 and girl. Ding dong the witch is dead, so “I’ve prepared some rustic dances for you.”
I was sitting in row G, which was perfect to hear an opera of intimate proportions. Retrospect Ensemble, founded as recently as 2009 by the harpsichordist Matthew Halls, comprised on this occasion a string quartet, bass and continuo which adds bassoon, theorbo and harpsichord to the cello. It features two storming baroque oboists who merrily exchanged chairs with two recorder players for the latter’s one aria. There was also a vibrant contribution from the trumpeter, Neil Brough, who brought a lot of fizz to the third act. On the basis of their performance of Handel, I would be very interested in the Retrospect Ensemble’s recording of Bach oratorios on the Linn label which was shortlisted for two awards.
I prefer my baroque music played on ‘authentic’ instruments, with energised lively tempi and a controlled use of vibrato. I know some critics cringe at the arrival of the natural horns or oboi da caccia, but not me. The best players of baroque music are those who give it total commitment; this is exactly what the Retrospect Ensemble delivered. Everybody knows just how tiny the Wigmore Hall stage is, designed for one singer and grand piano or no more than a string quartet. For Amadigi up to ten players were packed on to one side of the stage at any given time: I’ve already mentioned that the oboists slipped quietly away, giving up their seats to the recorder players for Amadigi’s contemplation of the fountain at the start of Act II, rather as if the ensemble was playing a game of musical chairs. There were also a viola player and the trumpeter who only came on to play as required. Despite the limitations of the space, the acoustic of the Wigmore is so well suited to the human voice that I found myself wishing we could hear some of the London Handel Festival events at this venue.
I have written rather a lot recently about the counter-tenor voice and its relationship to the famous castrati singers of Handel’s day. In the case of Amadigi, which was the last of Handel’s early London operas written between 1710 and 1715 in a ground-breaking attempt to import the genre of Italian opera, the title role was written for Nicolino Grimaldi, a castrato much feted as a very fine actor and singer, who was considered the first of the truly world-class singers to work with Handel. He started his singing career as a soprano, but by the time of Amadigi, he was singing in the alto tessitura. It is interesting to note that he was sufficiently educated to write and edit libretti and, when his singing voice declined, he continued to act. The other prince and Amadigi’s rival in love is Dardano, a role which was initially performed by the contralto, Diana Vico, but when the opera was revived the following year, this role was undertaken by the castrato Antonio Bernacchi.
Because of the restrictions of the dimensions of the stage, we did wonder in advance if it was a good idea to present Amadigi as semi-staged. This production was directed by the South African opera director, Alessandro Talevi and was not performed in costume. Despite the fact that all the men wore black suits and the women black concert dress, and their only props were a few strategically placed wooden crates on their side (mise-en-scène by Madeleine Boyd) I have never seen such convincing depictions of passionate devotion, thwarted love, ordeal by fire and remorse in a concert hall. Talevi deserves a lot of credit for this; if he can work miracles in a 6’ x 10’ space, I’d like to see his work in a major house.
Christopher Ainslie (who like Talevi was born in South Africa and trained in Britain) took on the role of Amadigi and Robin Blaze Dardano. In the plot they are love rivals for the princess Oriana, but Dardano knows his love is unrequited. Meanwhile the sorceress Melissa (Sally Silver) is besotted with Amadigi and arranges for Dardano to assume the identity of Amadigi in order to deceive Oriana and become the object of her love vicariously. I could barely contain my delight at the prospect of the battle of the counter-tenors this represented. On this hearing not one but both have now made it on to my top ten list. Ainslie acts with his whole being - physically, facially and vocally. His passion for Oriana was utterly convincing and he was also able to hold his own in duet with the sometimes vocally formidable Ms Silver. I think what worked particularly well for me was the contrast in the sonority of Ainslie’s voice compared with Blaze’s. Blaze, a more senior singer with fifty recordings under his belt, has the purity and melting tones of a Deller, but in the manner of a modern operatic counter-tenor is able to turn up the volume and project his voice to the back of the hall with apparent ease. I like the way he starts each note senza vibrato and introduces it gradually to increase the intensity. This worked particularly well in “Pena tiranna”, a plangent aria expressing profound despair, coloured by the solemn tones of a baroque bassoon descending inexorably.
Ainslie, the ‘new kid on the block’ in this context, views himself as trained in the bel canto tradition rather than the English choral tradition from which Blaze emerged. Both sang quite taxing melismatic passages with consummate ease and professionalism. With Blaze every note was focused and articulated whereas Ainslie sang in a more naturalistic way, achieving a greater dramatic intensity as a result. By contrast his vibrato is ever-present which means that Blaze’s sound would be more to my taste for a recital, whereas Ainslie perhaps offers greater versatility (he was a minor principal in Birtwistle’s Minotaur) and dramatic flexibility for the operatic stage.
And now we come to the ladies. Katherine Manley played Oriana as a skittish, giggly ingénue. Her aria “Gioie, venite in sen” was the most convincing depiction of sexual ecstasy I think I have ever seen on a London stage. In fact, she and Christopher Ainslie so effectively conveyed their passion for each other that I almost felt embarrassed – and this critic is not easily embarrassed. Ms Manley has already sung Oriana at the Central City Opera of Colorado and here she really inhabited the role. This for me was faultless Handel singing. She offered the spellbinding purity of a Blaze with the passionate commitment of an Ainslie. This young artist will I hope be going places as she offers it all – vocal agility, a glorious sound and a captivating stage presence.
The final member of the quartet was the fine South African soprano, Sally Silver. I think it was the final aria of Act II “Desterò dall’empia dite” which was for me the outstanding performance of the night. It comes as no surprise that she went from Amadigi into the recording studio with Richard Bonynge to sing Massenet. Perhaps some would say this was a voice which is ‘too big’ for Handel, but Ms Silver is a very talented musician and contained her voice appropriately so as not to blast her fellow singers off the stage. She was also well able to control her vibrato to achieve the clarity I wanted to hear when Handel is being sung. However it is clear that this singer could sing anything from Turnage to Verdi without missing a beat. Her voice and technique are truly world class, her sense of pitch supremely accurate, her vocal agility impressive and she, more than the others, really used the Italian words to express every nuance
I would urge all you opera seria fans out there to look out for the next opera performances by Retrospect Ensemble. If the singers, players, direction and interpretation are half as good next time as they were at the Wigmore, I can guarantee this will be a ‘must-see’ event.
Photographs © Mark Kiryluk (from production by City Central Opera, New York)