23 Sep 2011

Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall

Lawrence Zazzo’s last visit to the Wigmore Hall, in April earlier this year, saw him present an intriguing sequence of American song from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

As I commented in my review, the recital amply demonstrated his declared intention to “push the envelope in terms of what countertenors can do” not just in terms of “different repertoire or singing higher, but showing that you can give a rounded performance that's acceptable on all different levels”.

On this occasion, Zazzo, accompanied by Ian Page and the Classical Opera company, returned to the more familiar countertenor ‘territory’ of the late-eighteenth century, while retaining an idiosyncratic twist by focussing on Mozart’s youthful, and lesser known, operas and concert arias from the 1770s.

Following a crisp performance of the brief Intrada from Apollo and Hyancithus, composed when Mozart was just eleven years old, Zazzo opened with ‘Iam pastor Apollo custody greges’ from this same opera, in which Apollo appears before the King and subjects of Laconia to reassure them of his favour and willingness to protect them. Dressed as a shepherd, the god is modest and unassuming, and Mozart’s vocal lines have a fitting grace and simplicity. Though he sang with assurance and control, I felt that Zazzo did not always capture Apollo’s quiet dignity, although his technical finesse was apparent in the more elaborate melodies of the aria’s second half.

Indeed, while Zazzo undoubtedly possesses a natural and engaging theatricality, dramatic impact is sometimes achieved at the expense of vocal beauty and formal grace. In the first half of the recital, his voice seemed at times a little unyielding, the phrasing rather rigid. In the 1776 concert aria ‘Ombre felice ... Io ti lascio’, in which Alsace bids farewell to his wife, the accompanied recitative was enlivened and dynamic, but though penetrating, the necessary contemplative quality was sometimes absent from his subsequent reflection that they may never meet again.

The sentiments expressed by Farnace in his aria ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto, were more suited to Zazzo’s musical temperament. Vowing to defy and overthrow his father, the King of Pontus, the duplicitous Farnace reaches fiery emotional heights as he whips up a fierce and furious storm of resentful pride. With breathless excitement, Zazzo captured in music the vitality upon which the dramatic situation hinges; the demanding coloratura proved no problem and was employed as a natural, forceful expression of the aria’s emotion.

After the interval two arias from Ascanio in Alba,‘Perchè tacer degg’io?’ and ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti’, were delivered with greater eloquence and with a keen appreciation of the overall musico-dramatic structure of each number. The extended recitative which precedes ‘Perchè tacer degg’io?’ in which Ascanio vacillates impulsively between frustration and adoration, was particularly impressive, and led into an outpouring of uninhibited passion and joy.

Returning to Mitridate, re di Ponto to conclude the performance, Zazzo revealed how much the dishonourable Farnace has been transformed by his experiences in an eloquent interpretation of ‘Vadasi ... Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto’, in which Farnace repents his misdeeds. The relaxed central section was especially relaxed and sincere.

Handel’s delicate ‘Yet can I hear that dulcet lay’ from Handel’s The Choice of Hercules was a beautiful and moving encore; Zazzo shaped the phrases expertly and conveyed deeply affecting emotions.

The concert also featured two lively symphonies, which may or may not be the work of the teenage Mozart, but certainly indicated a burgeoning individuality. Ian Page drew committed and incisive playing from the Classical Opera Company Orchestra in K.74, striving for energy and textural clarity, although I felt that the dynamic contrasts were sometimes over-emphasised, diminishing the overall fluency and elegance. Moreover, while the small forces accompanied the soloist sensitively, in the instrumental works the two horns were inevitably a little exposed. Despite this, in the second of the two symphonies performed, they produced some sweet, sustained pianissimos. In the Italianate K.81, the violinsts sparkled, especially in the thrilling first movement, the rushing motifs of which fully display the piquant musical imagination of the young prodigy.

Claire Seymour


W. A. Mozart:

Intrada and ‘Iam pastor Apollo custodio greges’ from Apollo et Hyacinthus K.38
‘Ombre felice ... Io ti lascio’ K.255
Symphony No. 10 in G K.74
‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto K.87
‘Perchè tacer degg’io and ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti’ from Ascanio in Alba K.111
Symphony in D K.81
‘Vadasi ... Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto K.87