Category Archives: baroque

Giulio Cesare with the contralto cacciator (Theater an der Wien, 18 October 2017)

Cleopatra in Egitto

You might be surprised to hear that I once again lucked out with the weather in Vienna, something that only a year ago seemed laughable. T-shirt weather in October in Central Europe!

I also lucked out with my hastily bought seat1 and had an all night direct view at Galoumisù  visually there’s precious little better than DG’s upper back/neck and with a profile view you get the best of both worlds… But, you know, the music!

2017 shall remain in dehggi history as the year of the contralto hunt, as all my opera trips were dedicated to the rarest spotted fach.

Giulio Cesare: Lawrence Zazzo
Cleopatra: Emöke Baráth
Tolomeo: Filippo Mineccia
Cornelia: Delphine Galou
Sesto: Julie Boulianne
Achilla: Riccardo Novaro
Conductor: Ottavio Dantone | Accademia Bizzantina

It may come as a surprise to some that, although I have by now quite a few experiences with, for instance, Ariodante, this is the first time I’ve seen Giulio Cesare in any house. So that is why, perhaps, I felt I liked the music a little less. To be sure, taken aria by aria we have a slew of strong ones, but also our ladies get some proper dirges. Also Tolomeo doesn’t get quite the snappy material Polinesso has. His horribleness usually amounts to old skool sexism:

Tolomeo: hey sexy mama, how about you and me in the desert-shed? Bow-chica-wow-wow!
Cornelia (lips twisted in disgust): how dare you, third world vermin, speak like that to a Roman Citizen?!

This exchange happens 3 or 4 times (as Cornelia is also popular with Achilla) and with both Galou and Mineccia very good actors, it was, dramatically, the highlight of my night. But I couldn’t help thinking we’ve got a sleazy man caricature and a racist cow… I mean, no shit, Cornelia, you’re the symbol of the colonialist establishment, you may not want to use that particular trait as the one we should remember you by.

However, Anik and I agreed nobody moves quite like Galou. She has the height (+ those heels that somehow haven’t broken her back yet) and enviable posture and she knows how to work them. This was the first time when I could see why these dudes are so hot and bothered by Cornelia, who usually is made to look like this mature and sorrowful widow, ready for the veil.

In that sense, Boulianne as Sesto appeared more like Cornelia’s younger sister (a vacillating Zdenka?). Though a singer I have appreciated in the past2, with a resonant voice and interesting darker tone, I’m not convinced Handel is her repertoire. Perhaps she was too focused on the surprisingly many, moody arias Sesto has, but on the heels of Galou and Mineccia, I was hurting for even a bit of nervous movement to go with that angst. I know I’m a fidget but how can you refrain from putting your body into this stuff?!

Hats off to Mineccia for his fantastic stage presence, with liberal (but very well directed) moving about. As I was saying earlier, his interactions with Galou (<- those snarls! haha) were priceless. I also liked the “sculpted” string sound during Empio, sleale, indegno – an underrated aria. He didn’t portray Tolomeo quite as a teenager but in the context of a very fiery Cornelia that rude young man thing was a logical foil.

However, back to Boulianne’s Sesto, I did enjoy her duet with Galou’s Cornelia. Their mix of very different voices (though I think tessitura-wise they’re rather similar) worked nicely for me. The dark colour brings them together for blending, but the weight and approach to singing makes each one pop out.

Going to see Cesare for Cornelia is a thankless task, though, being a sucker for the plight of damsels in distress, I obliged 😉 Ok, who am I kidding

I don’t quite care about Cornelia’s arias; in fact I was surprised to learn she has a chipper one towards the end. So far no matter how good the singer I thought it was just whinge, whinge, that third world bastard killed my husband, boohoo, my teenage son and I are all alone, omg, who’s going to save us now that Cesare is dead? Hello, Mr librettist: why the hell has Cornelia gone to Egypt with her teenage son in tow?

Cornelia: look, Sesto3, that scum there is your father’s murderer! Stab him!
Sesto: omg, I must be strong, but I’m only 12! What’s my mum been thinking?! Shit, now I’m seeing things…

You will say, wait, wait, dehggi, she didn’t know Pompey was dead. She thought he was just imprisoned by Tolomeo and Cesare (aka, Ancient World Police) would negotiate with (= force) said third world bastard and all will end well and her family would get a Sharm el-sheikh holiday out of it as entitled to by their first world status. It’s still kind of funny when, after liberally throwing imperialist/racist abuse at sleazebag she goes all omg! we’re lost. You’re in a war zone, lady.

That being said, I loved Galou’s timing and interactions with the orchestra – the way she got in and out of the phrase and how that blended with the sound around her – surprisingly especially when she was “duetting” with the flute, if I remember correctly. I also got a kick out of her big grins during and lots of clapping after Va tacito.

Zazzo, whom I remember as a very approachable chap from the masterclass I saw a few years back, seems to be a relaxed and courteous man all around, as he gamely shared the stage with Mr Hornplayer during this (Va tacito) most famous (?) or Cesare’s areas. Perhaps not as memorable a voice as others, his is very congenial live, when countertenors can sometimes come off abrasive.

He’s also a “stage mover”, though perhaps not quite as deliberate as Galou and Mineccia, but he brought out a surprisingly affable and luminous Cesare, who’d probably (very nicely) tell Cornelia to dial down the imperialistic angle. Along the same lines, his portrayal came off like Cleopatra was out of his league, but wow, what luck, she might actually like him (the kiss at the end of their end of opera duet was on-the-cheek shy). By the way, how catchy is that duet? Zazzo and Baráth somehow found the energy to play with it and sound playful whilst doing so. It got stuck in my head for the rest of the night and most of next day.

So now that we’ve established TADW decided to advertise this as Cleopatra in Egitto, how was Baráth? She was very fine, indeed. She has the Baroque-tone, the coloratura, the breath, the intelligence and the looks to pull it off but you know I thought Cornelia outshined her Cleopatra when it came to stage movement/charisma. She’s a bit too contained/cautious, but perhaps she’ll let go with time and experience.

Novaro as Achilla was very reliable and I really liked his red/black dragon jacket but, you know, Achilla. He was pretty respectful in his interest in Cornelia and took her rejection rather meekly.

During whingy less interesting arias I had time to listen to the hall and it is true it’s not absorbent (which is probably a good thing for this repertoire). Luckily our singers were in very good form. The band wasn’t bad, though I understand it was occasionally sluggish/unfocused. The public was as usual very discerning and I was pleased to see that all the people on my row were interested through the evening.

Anik and I met before the show for one of those chats that managed to mix the traditional opera snark, the chicken with four breasts and whether personal bunkers of hard liquor is the best answer to Europe’s current problems. At interval we were joined for impressions by another very enthusiastic WS, who has already put up a review which will hopefully answer the questions I skipped.

The good news is TADW continues to win at Baroque opera in concert.  Another good news is that TADW doesn’t object to taking your camera to your seat. The bad news is Quel torrente was cut again. And with Galoumisù so close at hand!


  1. too hastily, it seems, as “my” box remained empty. I thought about returning to it but then I wouldn’t have had Galoumisu eyes all night. 
  2. Don Giovanni in Paris last December. 
  3. why are Sestos always urged by strong women to stab someone? 
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ROH Winter 2017/18 tickets now on general sale

It’s bright1 and early here for dehggi, as the loot was worth it:

Semiramide with JDD/Barcellona/Brownlee/D’Arcangelo

Salome being Salome (even with McVicar’s vision); next year I’m spoiled rotten: two cool operas to choose from for an outing on my birthday! I predictably went with:

Il ritorno d’Ulisse because when Monteverdi calls one must answer, especially after the great success with L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse two years ago. Let’s hope they’ll livestream this one as well.

There was 0 pain getting in/booking this time. Good job ROH!


  1. actually, it’s rather foggy (but warm). 

The Catalan German Piano ™ jams with the lo-fi czardas caballeros (Xavier Sabata, Wigmore Hall, 9 October 2017)

Wiggy usher (opens a window): oh, hello darling!
Woman: hello! I’ve never heard this band before, are they any good?

Xavi Sabata countertenor
(dis)Armonia Atenea, George Petrou director

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto for Strings in G minor RV157
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760)
Ciò che donò la frode … Alza al ciel pianta orgogliosa Adelaide
Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (c.1682-1732)
In te, sposa Griselda, mi uccido … Cara sposa Griselda
Antonio Vivaldi
Trio Sonata in D minor Op. 1 No. 12 RV63 ‘La follia’
Pietro Torri (c.1650-1737)
Vorresti col tuo pianto Griselda
Antonio Vivaldi
Gelido in ogni vena Farnace RV711

Interval

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Admeto, re di Tessaglia HWV22
Introduzione
Orride larve!
Chiudetevi miei lumi
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783)
Viver vogl’io sempre per te mio dio … Or mi pento La conversione di Sant’Agostino
Antonio Vivaldi
Mandolin Concerto in C major RV425
Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729)
Spirate, o iniqui marmi … Voi d’un figlio tanto misero Caio Marzio Coriolano
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini
O del mio caro ben … Già mi sembra al carro avvinto Adelaide

Encore:

Lorca poem in Greek
Delizie e contenti Cavalli

Yes, the “…” are supposed to be not particularly subtle pregnant pauses liberally placed.

And, no, the moniker “German piano” isn’t my invention, because I know nothing about pianos, German or otherwise. I nicked it from Baroque Bird, who actually owns a piano (German?).

I do however know a bit about the – trv kvlt – black metal sound, which I occasionally reference around here, most famously in relation to Roschmann’s “facial” during Non piu di fiori 😉

In this case, it’s what the band’s sound at “shredding time” reminded me of. Those of you not familiar with (the second wave of) black metal should note vintage bm is the most trv kvlt-sounding of all extreme metal genres1. Forget death metal growls, forget industrial’s… industrial sounds; bm’s vision2 is:

  1. get beat up instruments from a decrepit second hand shop
  2. drag them through thickening mud
  3. plug them in (bonus if you get electric shocks on occasion)
  4. shred in unison only
  5. place boombox from 1981 (previously run over by a lorry) about 50m away from the instruments
  6. hit record (hit it like you mean it)
  7. rip out the tape’s ribbon
  8. shred it to pieces
  9. piece it together randomly with used sellotape
  10. shake well until you achieve complete homogenisation of sound
  11. save on your laptop using the lowest sound quality possible
  12. play loudly on said 1981 boombox
  13. = masterpiece!
  14. bonus: take yourself very seriously
  15. ps: don’t believe me?

I (being the kind hearted optimist you know and love) prefer to think this was Petrou’s mission statement, rather than a showcase for the band’s actual skills.

Or I did back in Halle this past June, when I blamed it all on boogie the acoustically challenged venue.

They did come up with a new twist here – perhaps they did it in Halle too, and the acoustics were indeed so echo-y the whole thing bounced off my skull and got lost. This new(?) twist was the czardas-turned last ritornello in La follia, that unfailing old Vivaldi chestnut. Or was it a sirtaki? Now I seem to remember it’s customary to make sure your violin keeps in tune for a czardas

but I’m not a musician, so I can go stick my opinion in a blog or something, right?… all I’m saying is I’ve actually (or literally) had my ears checked recently and they have passed the MOT.

This Summer I listened to more Currentzis than I cared to and to be fair, that

pregnant pause thing

has its merits. But this time I really hurt for some legato with that pregnancy. It should still flow, shouldn’t it? I don’t know if you, dear reader, are familiar with Tracey Emin’s hand drawings, but suffice it to say that drawing skills aren’t prerequisite for becoming a contemporary fine art superstar. Still Tracy Emin surprised us with her humble side a few years back when she suddenly put some effort into honing her inner Picasso. The night’s orchestral accompaniment was the aural equivalent of that when it came to negotiating dynamics (and, often, tune).

dehggi (during the Cavalli encore): ah, so exquisite! Even the violins are more in tu… nevermind, I spoke too soon. But Sabata should sing more of this stuff.

After all, we were all there to hear him. I for one wanted to see him live specifically for his dramatic talents. At one point (right after the intermission?) he walked out with the band. The aria had a very long intro so he stood quietly to the side. All of a sudden he walked decisively towards the centre of the room, but not “hi all, listen to my next aria”, which is how it often feels like in recitals. Or how Antonio Poli walked off stage after a really good rendition of Il mio tesoro in the staged Don Giovanni at ROH :-p 3 No, this was thoroughly in character well before he started singing. And then things got even better because he has a very good technique that serves him up and down the range. And, you know, he‘s in tune.

At first I didn’t quite know what was happening because I barely heard him during the first aria and I lay some heavy blame on his projection or lack thereof. You should be heard from the 11th row at Wiggy. But things improved dramatically during the evening, which caused me to place the blame back on the Tracey Emins. Good on him for not forcing himself to sing over the racket. The second aria was already much better, when he employed some very stylish forays down the middle of his voice and all of a sudden someone on stage had personality. Fancy that.

He’s not the kind of singer who dazzles with endless coloratura (I understand this is the basis of the German Piano metaphor) but he can phrase with the best of them and has an imagination (and skills) to shape the sound, as thadieu would say. Which is why he should sing more of that Early Baroque, I think he has the right feel for it and for making it exciting.

In spite of all this, there were a couple of things from the others that I enjoyed – the metallic wrist-slashing chords from the viola da gamba during Gelido in ogni vena, the jazzy show starter from the double bass4 and the “wave” sound (during the Lorca song) that came out from the gut of the harpsi when Petrou stroked it. Wish the Vivaldijazz was further explored/incorporated and not in that L’aperggiata smooth jazz manner.

… it made for very lively conversation with Baroque Bird, Leander and friends at the interval and afterwards, though we didn’t all agree about everything.

as usual, sorry for any typos/errors, it’s been almost a week and I want to put it out there and my brain is a bit hazy edit-wise today.

  1. and it thus attracts tryhards by the boatload. BM fans tend to be even more humourless than those belcanto fans who think opera died when Callas lost her voice the first time. 
  2. “Just crank the gain, turn up the treble, scoop the mids, and bury the bass. “Metal” distortion pedals can also work well. The old bands did not give a f@ck about good tone.” (from here). 
  3. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that! He just walked away, like ok, aria done, let me get back to my crossword puzzle. 
  4. Yes to jazzy Vivaldi in general, though perhaps not so much to a syncopated tune in particular… but that’s personal taste for you. 

The Great Book of Big Composer Hair

It all started with hair and it veered into writing opera:

Clearly the red scarf was the essential accessory that season!

The contralto counter-offensive

Since last year’s Juditha at the Barbican my appreciation for Andrea Marcon’s way with Vivaldi has escalated dramatically. I was casually going through a bunch of renditions of that badass1 Sorge l’irato nembo when I came across this one:

I really like the interesting way the B section is done here. It’s so smooth.

I wanted to write more on the subject (I love this aria – and all the other Orlando ones), post a couple more renditions but I am deflated from too much irl fuss this month so this is it. It’s a good moment to have Basso in the spotlight, since I don’t think I’ve done so yet. More power to the contraltos and their ferocious set of chompers!


  1. Isn’t Orlando the fount of the greatest Vivaldi arias?! 

Why is Trekkie Nerone singing Ottone’s entrance aria?

😀 look at those moves1! What formidable Ottavia can play this space-conquering Ottone?

ps: ever tried having your Ottone duet with himself on this? I accidentally opened two similar windows a few seconds apart and let me tell you = twice the fun.


  1. on second thought, forget Nerone, that’s Space Cesare right there! 

Israel in Egypt (The Plagues according to Handel) (BBC Proms, 1 August 2017)

I bet you the tenor just loves being the one to say that

In July 1984 Metallica released Ride the Lightning, which turned out to be an early Thrash classic. Crucially (for yours truly), it included this gem about that bit in the Old Testament that deals with the 10 Plagues:

But way (way) before that – over one month in late 1738 -, DJ Handel flipped the pages of his well thumbed Bible to the Book of Exodus and covered the same territory in his most chorus heavy oratorio, known as Israel in Egypt. I’d say both are on the same level of exciting, as is the story itself. I mean plagues on the enemy. Genius nationalistic PR there.

DJ Handel assembled Israel from a motley array of sources that did include his own work. Even so, the fickle London audience, on whose account he had stopped writing Italian language dramatic works on secular themes (= operas) and turned to English language dramatic works on Biblical themes (= oratorios), was too shocked by the sheer amount of chorus featured here, so Handel soon revised the work by removing the initial chorus only 30min lament and adding some arias instead. Chorus societies have of course never stopped loving it – and so will anyone with an appreciation for a finely spun tune on multiple voices -, though I bet the singers are hoarse by the end.

The cheerful Plague of hailstones (with fire) is catchy as hell yet the best bit is the immediately preceding Plague of flies and lice (He spake the word), where Handel has the strings positively buzzing:

Christie really went to town with the buzzing, it came off a lot more vivid with surround sound from the strings than in this otherwise very fine Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir recording from some 30-40 years ago (maybe they had similar but the technology of the time doesn’t do it justice).

Both are apparently clever rip-offs from adventure-loving Alessandro Stradella’s wedding serenata Qual prodigio é ch’io miri –  also known as the Plague of marriage 😉 – from the time of Handel’s audience’s grandparents (he clearly figured they wouldn’t know these tunes anyway).

On 31st July 2017 at 8:40pm, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment finished playing Tito at Glyndebourne and on 1st August 2017 at 7:30pm they started playing Israel at Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. Busy week, eh?

Handel Israel in Egypt (1739 version)

Zoë Brookshaw soprano
Rowan Pierce soprano
Christopher Lowrey countertenor
Jeremy Budd tenor
Dingle Yandell bass-baritone
Callum Thorpe bass
Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
William Christie conductor

I would urge you to listen to this fine oratoriccio but first you need to decide if you want to register with the BBC instead, as they now require.

I have to congratulate the 60 piece or so choir for a truly ace job. Their blending was optimal, as was their stamina and timing. A true pleasure to listen to, due in part to the clever arrangement of different voices among each other (sopranos, male altos, sopranos, tenors, bass etc.) but mostly clearly to their superior craft. The orchestra was equally big for Handel yet Christie got a very light and supple sound from them, clear and with tempi that didn’t let anyone flag. In fact I heard some people comment on the way out that “there were no dull moments”. Great interventions from the trumpets, timpanist and the winds. We’ve established already that DJ Handel knew what he was doing and we know Christie does too.

So thank you, once again, Baroque Bird, for this last minute ticket 🙂 (very good stalls seat! with excellent view of the orchestra, choir and singers; though it was on the side, I didn’t have trouble hearing the soloists. My favourites were Thorpe and Yandell in their duet). Royal Albert Hall looks even more daunting when you look up from the stalls – 7 level (ha!) all in all.

So now back to Tito. Remember, the livestream is tomorrow at 6pm GMT, up on the same page for one week 😀

Tu vivi, says the tenor (more Ariodante)

Or get over it, brov! Don’t let that unfaithful woman get you down.

Tenors get no(t enough) love around here 😉 Contrary to how it might appear, I like some of them quite a bit. Handel wrote some neat stuff for the voice in 1735:

I like how tight, clean and elastic this rendition is. (Honorary mezzo) Croft always has emotion in his voice, he doesn’t need to force the issue (the emotion bit is hinted at in the interview at the bottom). It helps that his tone is noble and has just the right amount of cojones so one doesn’t feel like his characters can be knocked down with a feather. Here’s a tenor I wish I’d seen live, because he’s doing well here too, at a tempo not many could cope with:

In this interview he says something rather interesting about how Minkowski helped him get back his confidence with (Baroque) coloratura and how you need to try it before you can figure out how you’re going to approach it; also about the challenge of composers who write “mathematically”:

It always surprises me when a naturally gifted singer comes from a not particularly musical family (in his case, it was both him and his brother, but apparently no one else).

…and it ends like Parsifal

I haven’t been able to write about this issue (old skool 20th century interpretations of Baroque opera) quite as I would’ve liked to. It always comes off – at least in my head – as a cross between a whinge and an eye-roll. I want to find something to like about it yet I could never get over all the hurdles (there are just so many). I try not to be dogmatic about things because I know that’s the easiest way to fence myself away from potential enjoyment. But this is like reading a book from another era and going “did decent people from back then really think this was ok?” Then I wonder what things we take for granted now that future generations will roll their eyes at. So whinge or not, I’ll go ahead and post.

WHEN PARSIPPEA STRIKES

1963 was a very long time ago, further from us than 1643 it seems. Just because it’s set in Rome it doesn’t mean it has to be GRAND. I take it Karajan did not have tongue-in-cheek in his vocabulary? Of course not, everybody belongs to the socially accepted gender-description. But if you don’t get the joke, then why even bother with a work like this? Is this merely an academic attempt? An overly earnest nod to “the genius of Monteverdi”? What exactly did someone of Karajan’s mindset think when looking at that manuscript?1

Jurinac is merely unsexy as Poppea (shouldn’t that be a capital offence in this opera? but in spite of myself I like her in the seduction duet – she shows potential compared with her hopeless Nerone). Perhaps she’s as sexy as a 30ft marble statue of Mother Earth could be; but even if she were able to do something closer to the original idea, what else could she do, given the dire context?

I mean the tempi! OMG. A kingdom – no, two kingdoms – for a hint of rubato and a lick of finesse. Everything is so square, there’s zero flow, life is completely sucked out of the score, details-what-details, (across the board) no sense of phrasing at singing level. There is a chugging GRANDEUR at orchestral level (I bet K used the full forces of Wiener Philharmonic) but that seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t this primarily vocal music?

The way Ottone’s entrance lament E pur io torno cui qui was obliterated of any semblance of poetry and longing makes baby Jesus cry because that music is some of the most beautiful in the whole opera. Seriously, if you like it even a little bit don’t listen.

The chap (a Wagnerian baritone…) simply can’t wrap his voice around this stuff and neither can Wiener Philharmonic cope with the filigree. At funeral speed he uneasily sketches a couple of flourishes, much like a first timer on ice would try to get to the other side of the rink, but the only thing he conveys is a timid attempt at religious fervour from the very general ballpark of Bach’s Passions; you’re not quite sure where he should be arriving anyway, since at that speed and squareness the phrase is pretty much a candle’s flicker in a damp, dark tomb.

One of the beautiful things with Monteverdi is that it’s so sparsely written it allows everyone an opinion. Of course, it also allows for exercises such as this. The other beautiful thing about Monteverdi is it’s not rocket science. Just say (legato) that sentence in your head: E pur io torno qui. How simple and beautiful, eh? It really doesn’t need anything besides what it is. So, yea, you can have your vision but you also have to take what he gives you as he gives it to you. Don’t muddle it up; have some respect for the music.

But it’s Nerone who is so off the mark it defies description. Seriously, in the Nerone-Poppea duet of mutual seduction/manipulation he brays like an amorous donkey (hint: louder =/= more passionate; at least not before 1840).

Even so “the best thing” is the orchestration just prior to and on Pur ti miro. But then there’s the heldenchoir towards the end… seriously, the goodies keep on coming. Ottavia’s Addio, Roma! is hair raising. If I were Nerone I’d remove all the spanners and candle sticks within her reach^%&(()&&%$F!

Did everyone (aside from religious music specialists) sing like this back then? I mean, did they (ie, Karajan) just use the same singers for all the operas and did all the operas simply sound like either young or mature Wagner?

Did I mention the tempi and the clever curious medieval accents? This is 1643 not the 1400s. Why would Ottavia sing Disprezzata regina as if she were a medieval princess locked in a misty tower on the northern edges of Norway (or perhaps Outer Mongolia)? It does sound like she’ll break into Vissi d’arte2 any moment now – which is neither Northern Norway nor Outer Mongolia and definitely not Monteverdi.

In spite of my usual snarkiness I don’t want to kick a sick puppy but this is just so odd, from a 2017 perspective. I enjoy when something is done slightly – or not so slightly – differently, but not if it’s not working. The very vision doesn’t match in this case.

Yet, like in the case of a car wreck, once you start listening it’s hard to stop. It’s very interesting listening to this in parallel with Harnoncourt’s version from 1979, which itself is way more flowery than what’s being done nowadays, yet clearly from another world.

ps: I need to write a separate post about E pur io torno qui. There are some interesting interpretive differences out there (and I’ve been a bit obsessed with it recently; that Ottone ain’t half bad; then that weird interaction with Ottavia… heh).

ps2: the title (and the mention of Turandot) comes from one of the wry comments below the yt video. It’s worth reading them.


  1.  needs more brass, probably. 
  2. I only say that because I can’t quote anything Turandot sings. 

Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 (Barbican, 23 June 2017)

The Hipermestra post got really long-winded (out of necessity) and in the meanwhile I saw two other shows, one of which was Monteverdi’s Vespro alla beata vergine. I just got Harnoncourt’s book in which he also discusses the interpretation of this work and thought about reading it before writing this but I’m a slow reader (not just a slow writer) and it’s starting to annoy me that posts are piling up.

Academy of Ancient Music | Choir of the AAM
Robert Howarth director/harpsichord
Rowan Pierce soprano
Louise Alder soprano
Charles Daniels tenor
Thomas Hobbs tenor
Richard Latham bass

This is a work I first heard around the time I was getting better acquainted with Monteverdi in general, and usually return to Gardiner’s version with the wonderful Monteverdi Choir; I liked it immediately. The AAM Choir isn’t quite as accomplished (well, few are) but they did a very solid job. Chiefly they were excellently drilled and the interaction (balance, dynamics) between the female and male side came off beautifully. My main complaint is I would’ve liked a bit more personality.

Since Ariodante I have pretty much changed my mind on the Barbican. Yes, this year my outings there have been a lot more satisfying; perhaps my seat choices were wiser since the semi-disastrous St Matthew Passion. This time I sat on the left side of the second level and again had no issues with acoustics. Although I had to go into work very early and later make it into town, which is something I try to avoid because I’m inevitably tired, it was my seatmate who fell asleep within 10min.

Ok, there’s plainchant but still – this is very exciting musical writing, with some striking chord changes and the further contrast of plainchant and not so plain singing. Hipermestra also helped; I noticed every time I see something by Cavalli I get an urge to go through Monteverdi’s oeuvre for a few solid days (this time it was the ’93 Poppea from Bologna) so I was in the right mental place to absorb this stuff.

I thought Alder sounded a tad too operatic in the context (though she toned it down as the evening progressed) whilst Pierce was in even more need of a defined personality than the choir. The men seemed better positioned stylistically for this work. Daniels reminded me a lot of Anthony Rolfe Johnson in tone and delivery (but less emotionally nuanced), with a very good understanding of the style and some beautiful touches dynamic-wise, though quite alarmingly short of breath when it came to coloratura. His breath control seemed fine when single long notes were required. Latham was fine but didn’t have all that much to sing.

The vocal star of the evening for me was Hobbs, with a lovely high tenor, very good projection, easy coloratura, excellent style (the only one who got inside the chords in search of harmony and as such was a pleasure to listen to (the thing JDD explains here1; that’s the thing with this early music, as far as I understand it: you, the singer/soloist, have a lot of room to express your imagination or tremendous responsibility to make the whole thing live – when it works it’s revealed as particularly affecting music2). His duets with Daniels were some of the best things all evening, along with the work of the choir.

The true kult Early Music orchestra (complete with Baroque bassoon & trombones, cornetti and, of course, theorbo) is rather fine; Howarth kept them in a tight leash, to the point the choir overpowered them in several occasions. More power to the choir 😉 But I could follow some nice lines for the double bass and smooth cornetto work.

It was an interesting evening combining the peculiarly English type of relaxed atmosphere with a kind of music that manages to withstand the passing of centuries. Maybe it’s because Monteverdi allows you so much wiggle room that the music never feels dated.


  1. I recommend listening to the entire sequence, it’s one of my favourite JDD Masterclass moments, a total light bulb! moment. 
  2. I don’t know if it’s affecting in a spiritual sense, because I’m not particularly spiritual, though I do get the general sense of that from certain performances of certain things. Again I don’t quite think AAM is hitting that spot and perhaps Monteverdi’s music itself is rather worldlier than that. Nevertheless, it does have a very strong emotional impact, but a quieter sort, none of that I’m going to pass out deal, though I’m occasionally on the brink of tears – but that’s not the essence of it. It’s not about tears of sighing, rather more abstract yet still alive.