09 Jun 2013

Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers

Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.

It must be both a privilege and a daunting prospect to be asked to participate in a tribute concert to the singer, who died from breast cancer in 2006; here three mezzo-sopranos stepped up to the honour and the challenge, joining the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - with whom Hunt Lieberson collaborated closely at Glyndebourne and on CD - celebrating three contrasting, full-blooded female roles from Handel’s operas.

Karine Deshayes (a late replacement for the indisposed Stéphanie D’Oustrac) began and ended the evening with Sesto’s arias, ‘L’angue offeso mai riposa’ (The offended serpent will not rest) and ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ from Giulio Cesare respectively. Deshayes has a vibrant voice, particularly at the top, and she nimbly negotiated the passage work. But, while there was undoubted rage and impassioned purpose, she didn’t quite capture the emotional depth and range of these arias, as Sesto vows vengeance against Ptolemy for the assassination of his father.

Thus in Sesto’s first number in the opera, there was much bite in the repetitions of ‘Svegliatevi’ (awaken) as Sesto determines to muster the fury in his soul. Yet, in the central section of the da capo form, as Sesto’s thoughts turn to the father he has lost only moments before, the heaviness in his heart outweighs his impotent anger; there is vengeance but also grief. William Christie drew a fittingly spare timbre from the accompanying OAE, but Deshayes did not quite match the players’ melancholy, sombre weight. ‘Figlio’ (son) needs rather more plangent emphasis, as Sesto both implores his father and imagines his paternal words of counsel and support.

In Glyndebourne’s 2006 production of Theodora, Hunt Lieberson took the part of Irene, the protagonist’s devoted supporter. Irene’s arias are intense, heartfelt statements of faith as her beloved friend, Theodora, an early Christian, is persecuted and condemned by the Romans. Reviewing the live recording of Peter Sellars’ acclaimed production, Rupert Christiansen commented, ‘it is impossible to conceive of this character’s arias being sung with more grave beauty or emotional commitment than [Hunt Lieberson] brings to them’.

Quite a tall order, then, for Anna Stéphany, performing ‘Ah! Whither should we fly’ and ‘Lord to Thee each night and day’. Stéphany combined vocal beauty with convincing characterisation, Christie shaping the contrasting tempos and textures with style but without undue mannerism. A gentle firmness characterised the voice in ‘As with rosy steps’; Stéphany’s lower register was rich and sonorous, and she dared to adopt a whispering pianissimo to moving effect. In ‘Lord to thee’ Stéphany introduced a startling change of character in the second part of the aria, ‘Though convulsive rocks the ground’, which served to make the profound devotion of the da capo repeat yet more affecting.

‘Where Shall I Fly?’ from Hercules is a tour de force of theatrical and histrionic drama and Renata Pokupić was almost equal to its vocal demands. As Hercules’ jealous, fiery wife, she delivered Dejanira’s desperate self-reproaches with an impressive combination of spontaneity and control, but her lower range sometimes lacked power and penetration, and she didn’t quite pierce the depths of Dejanira’s subconscious mind. Pokupić encompassed the extensive melodic range of the virtuosic ‘Dopo Notte’ (After night), from Ariodante with skill, the registers more even here, although the syncopated rhythms which drive the music forward sometimes lacked precision. It was, however, a fine showcase for her communicative panache; Ariodante’s exuberant joy at being reunited with his beloved Ginevra was compellingly and upliftingly conveyed.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provided an animated, responsive accompaniment to all three soloists, William Christie finding a perfect balance of grace and power. The emphatic playing by the celli and double basses in the overture to Giulio Cesare - perhaps encouraged by the explosive stamp with which Christie commenced some of the instrumental numbers! - was complemented by more reflective bass meanderings in the overture to Theodora. In the two concerti grossi there was considerable variety of both texture and mood, and the playing of the three soloists was crisp and rhythmically exciting. The relationship between soloists and ripieno was one based upon sharing and exchange, the flow seamless, the tempi invigorating. As a closing tribute to Hunt Lieberson, Christie announced an encore; the diverse sentiments of the ‘Musette’ from Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.6 were a perfect homage to the singer’s artistry and integrity.

Claire Seymour


Giulio Cesare - Overture; ‘L’angue offeso mai riposa’; Theodora - ‘Ah! Whither should we fly… As with rosy steps the morn’; Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op.6 No.12; Hercules - ‘Whither shall I fly?’; Theodora - Overture; Lord, to ‘Thee each night and day’; Ariodante - ‘Dopo notte’; Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op.3 No.2; Giulio Cesare - Svegliatevi nel core. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Monday 3rd June 2013