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Performances

Allan Clayton [Photo by White Label Productions]
11 May 2015

‘Where’er You Walk’: Handel’s Favourite Tenor

I have sometimes lamented the preference of Ian Page’s Classical Opera for concert performances and recordings over staged productions, albeit that their renditions of eighteenth-century operas and vocal works are unfailingly stylish, illuminating and supported by worthy research.

‘Where’er You Walk’: Handel’s Favourite Tenor

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Allan Clayton [Photo by White Label Productions]

 

But, with their recent production of J.C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria at the Royal College of Music fresh in my mind and now this superb presentation of arias and instrumental pieces by Handel, Boyce, Arne and John Christopher Smith at the Wigmore Hall — in which Classical Opera were partnered by tenor Allan Clayton, a former Classical Opera Associate Artist — there seems little to bemoan.

The programme celebrated the 300th birthday of John Beard (1715-1791), the tenor who created more Handelian roles than any other singer of his day. Brought up in the Chapel Royal, after his debut in Il Pastor fido in 1734 Beard became Handel’s tenor of choice for the next thirty years, singing in many of the composer’s operas and oratorios. Some have made great claims for Beard, Winton Dean remarking that ‘The whole direction of the English oratorio was changed by his choice of Beard’s tenor voice for the part of Samson’, and others suggesting that his high technical ability and intelligent acting raised the profile of the tenor voice and shunted opera’s traditional ‘soprano hero’ into the side-lines.

This was a demanding programme but Clayton exhibited a relaxed demeanour throughout, somewhat diffident even. He demonstrated great stamina and diversity: as the programme led us on a chronological tour through Beard’s career, Clayton’s appealing tenor was by turns sweetly soothing, poignantly imploring and vigorously rousing. He used dynamics and registers with acute sensitivity and skill, and his quiet singing was particularly beautiful. His tenor is fairly light and climbs easily with no sense of strain, but it is flexible too and in the passages requiring virtuosic agility it had both litheness and focus. Clayton’s diction, too, was excellent.

All of these qualities were immediately apparent in the opening item, Silvio’s aria ‘Sol nel mezzo risona del core’ (The very core of my heart calls me) from Il Pastor fido. The long melodic lines of the first section were mellifluous and fluid, with octave leaps cleanly negotiated and well-judged swells of intensity, while the more vigorous passages in the central episode were precise rendered. Clayton’s open tone and easy manner conveyed perfectly the warm candidness of a young man whose heart will soon be turned from hunting hounds to seeking love. The Orchestra of Classical Opera, led superbly and with calm confidence by Matthew Truscott, provided an elegant but unobtrusive accompaniment, engaging sensitively with the voice in passages of gentle imitation.

Greater experience and passion coloured ‘Tu vivi, e punito’ from Handel’s Ariodante, in which Lurcanio pleads with his brother, Ariodante, not to kill himself after he has witnessed Polinesso entering the chambers of his betrothed, Ginevra. Here, Clayton’s tone was more vibrant, the vibrato faster, and the tenor’s line was complemented by bright Vivaldi-like sequences in the violins. The words were crisply enunciated, the phrases culminating in lengthy melismatic runs requiring considerable control and dexterity. Careful thought and skilful breathing were also much in evidence in ‘Un momento di contento’ (A single moment of happiness), Oronte’s final aria from Alcina, in which the general recognises that he cannot resist the lure of the unfaithful but repentant Morgana. Here, Clayton sustained the long lines beautifully, shaping the repeatedly rising motifs into coherent phrases expressing Oronte’s hopes and doubts, first assertive, then reticent. Clayton conveyed the character’s poise and dignity, the major key evoking a quiet pathos as the violins skipped delicately through the triplet quavers.

Similarly agile finger-work in the strings together with springiness in the voice conveyed the optimism of Fabio in ‘Vedi l’ape che ingegnosa’ from Handel’s Berenice, in which the Roman ambassador ties to persuade Alessandro to forget his unrequited love for Berenice and turn his attentions to her sister. Clayton’s entreating swells were persuasive and Page inspired his players to dance through the running passages airily. ‘Thus when the sun from’s wat’ry bed’ from Samson concluded the first half, in which the eponymous hero finally yields to the Israelites’ demands that he must repair to the feast of Dagon to delight the Philistines with some of his feats of strength. In the recitative, Page established a mood of unrest and anger, but the ensuing aria was solemn and poignant, a slow, warm, throbbing accompaniment the perfect foil to Clayton’s dignified, firm vocal line. It was, however, the preceding item — ‘Softly rise, o southern breeze’ from William Boyce’s ‘serenata’ Solomon — that most moved me in the first half of the programme. The work is a frankly amorous exchange between two pastoral characters named simply ‘He’ and ‘She’, and in this sensuous aria — which followed a robust, racing Sinfonia and sensuous recitative — Clayton’s subtle expression complemented by a lovely, sultry bassoon solo resulted in an enchanting lyricism.

After the interval, Clayton made a striking impression in Jupiter’s ‘Where’er you walk, from Handel’s Semele, his voice as beguiling and tender as the soothing Arcadian scene which the God has summoned up to assuage the petulance of his discontented mortal beloved, Semele. This was a perfect blend of voice and instruments. The tenor showed us his diversity of colour and characterisation as the anguished Jephtha who must sacrifice his daughter, Iphis, to honour a vow before God; after a tormented recitative, in Jephtha’s prayer ‘Waft her, angels, through the skies’ Clayton employed a beautiful, whispered head voice and negotiated the large leaps in the vocal line with elegance. ‘Call forth thy pow’rs’ from Judas Maccabeus was characterised by unflagging energy and excellent communication of the text.

It was not Handel, however, who brought the programme to a close, but music by his contemporaries Thomas Arne and John Christopher Smith. The overture to Arne’s Alfred was bright and Italianate, Truscott and his fellow violinists demonstrating an impeccable appreciation of the fioritura style (and some astonishingly skilful bowing and co-ordination) as Page expertly guided the exchanges between strings and woodwind. Sprung rhythms were brisk and buoyant, and the natural horns were confident and true. In ‘From the dawn of early morning’, Clayton showed considerable stamina, despatching the rapid scalic runs with ease and conveying stirring patriotism and loyalty as Alfred the Great swears eternal devotion to his wife, Eltruda.

Similar strength and control were evident in ‘Thou, like the glorious sun’ from Arne’s Artaxerses. After the death of his first wife, the aristocrat Lady Henrietta Herbert, Beard marriage Charlotte Rich, daughter of John Rich the actor-manager in charge of London’s Covent Garden Theatre. It was a prudent move for upon Rich’s death, Beard stepped into his father-in-law’s managerial shoes and set about increasing the number of operas performed at Drury Lane, and commissioning new works from his composer friends. Thomas Arne contributed two new operas to the repertoire in 1762, Love in a Village and Artaxerses; in the latter Beard took the role of Artabanes, who in this aria, having been forced to condemn his own son to death, regrets the suffering he has caused and promises to save Arbaces and reward and crown him. From the evidence of this aria, Beard must have retained his vocal prowess to the end of his career and, despite a challenging evening Clayton was more than equal to its demands, demonstrating excellent enunciation, firm tone and well-supported breathing. ‘Hark, hark, how the hounds and horn’ from John Christopher Smith’s The Fairies — based upon A Midsummer Night’s Dream and first performed at Drury Lane in 1755 — called forth rousing rhythms from the horns and sturdy sustained singing from Clayton.

Deafness curtailed Beard’s career, and in 1767 he sold his share in Covent Garden and retired, though it is reported that as late as 1790 he could be seen in the audience at Drury Lane, equipped with an ear-trumpet. Allan Clayton’s technical accomplishments and artistic insight suggest that his career may match Beard’s for acclaim and longevity.

Claire Seymour


Artists and programme:

Classical Opera; Allan Clayton tenor; Ian Page director. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th May 2015.

Handel: Overture to Esther, ‘Sol nel mezzo risona del core’ (Il pastor fido), Sinfonia and ‘Tu vivi e punito’ ( Ariodante), ‘Un momento di contento’ (Alcina), ‘Vedi l'ape che ingegnosa’ (Berenice); Boyce: Sinfonia and ‘Softly rise, O southern breeze!’ (Solomon); Handel: ‘Thus when the sun from’s wat’ry bed’ ( Samson), ‘Where’er you walk’ (Semele), ‘Call forth thy pow’rs, my soul’ (Judas Maccabeus), ‘Waft her, angels’ (Jephtha); Arne: Overture and ‘From the dawn of early morning’ (Alfred); John Christopher Smith: ‘Hark how the hounds and horn’ (The Fairies): Arne: ‘Thou like the glorious sun’ (Artaxerxes).

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