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Performances

The King’s Consort [Photo by Taco van der Werf]
04 May 2016

King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall

I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.

King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The King’s Consort [Photo by Taco van der Werf]

 

In the event, while there were many opportunities to enjoy Vivaldi’s melodic gifts and colourful scoring, and players and singers were undoubtedly committed, the various parts of what is essentially a pasticcio didn’t quite add up to a persuasive whole.

In fact, ‘serenata’ derives from the Italian ‘sereno’: calm and clear. The form emerged in the mid-1660s as a sort of hybrid nestled somewhere between cantata, oratorio and opera, and serenatas often composed to mark a festive or celebratory occasion. Usually comprising two acts, they were presented ‘in concert’ by two or more soloists, who did not wear costumes and were not required to act but simply took turns to sing their arias, which employed the general musical style of contemporary opera. Indeed, there was often no ‘action’ to speak of; rather, the inevitably laudatory texts commonly presented discursive debate between allegorical figures. (I am indebted to Michael Talbot, from whose programme article and longer essay, ‘The Serenata in Eighteenth-Century Venice’ (Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No.18, 1982) I have gleaned historical information.)

Vivaldi’s La Senna festeggiante fits this bill. Domenico Lalli’s libretto sends L’Età dell’Oro (The Golden Age) and La Virtù (Virtue) on a quest beside the River Seine (La Senna). In a succession of fairly succinct arias, duets and trios they sing each other’s praises in verse of somewhat tedious verbosity, then espy the splendours of the Palace of Versailles and eulogize the French King, rejoicing in the glories that await him.

As might be expected of the form, there is no dramatic content, which might have played to Vivaldi’s advantage as he is able to exercise his melodic flair without concern for ‘plot’ and dramatic form, and the score certainly has an air of freedom and resourcefulness. Historically, the static nature of the performance probably aided the singers too — especially if expediency meant there was little time for compilation and rehearsal — for they were not required to learn their roles from memory. On this occasion, though, advantage became drawback, and of the three soloists — soprano Julia Doyle (L'Età dell'Oro), contralto Hilary Summers (La Virtù) and bass David Wilson-Johnson (La Senna) — only Summers was confidently off-score and as such communicated much more directly and powerfully, establishing a more three-dimensional ‘character’. (Summers sang the role for conductor Robert King’s Hyperion recording of the work in 2002: Hyperion CDA67361/2.)

But, there was plenty to admire, not least the nods towards the Gallic style which pepper the Italianate elements of the score. Although only three of Vivaldi’s known eight serenatas survive, several are thought to have been connected with events at the French court of Louis XV, and commissioned by the recently appointed French Ambassador to Venice, Vincent Languet, Count of Gergy. Thus, La gloria Imeneo (1725) was composed to celebrate Louis’s wedding to the Polish Princess Maria Leszczynska, while the lost serenata L’unione della pace e di marte honoured the birth of royal twins in 1727.

La Senna festeggiante deals with Louis’s accession to the throne in 1724 and was probably intended to be delivered as a homage on the feast of St. Louis — though Talbot laments the absence of a central bifolio from the long final recitative in which conventionally the circumstances of performance are elucidated, noting that King has supplied extra music to text by Carlo Vitali to fill the gap.

Vivaldi’s enthusiastic experimentation with the French style is evident in the dance-like pulse which enlivens many of the arias and in the extensive use of accompagnato recitative. The Gallic idiom was immediately apparent in the animated dotted rhythms of the first part of the opening Sinfonia (and the more aggressive counterpart in the Part 2 overture). The five string players of the King’s Consort played with robustness but despite their obvious hard work, the violin tone was a little thin. The central movement of the Sinfonia lacked lyrical warmth as a result, though the final Allegro was bright and buoyant. Elsewhere the ‘off-the-string’ bowing was a little dry. Perhaps aware of the challenge for the strings, King extended the use of Vivaldi’s prescribed two recorders and two oboes to double or replace the strings elsewhere in the score, so it was fortunate that the intonation discrepancies in the Sinfonia were quickly settled.

Julia Doyle was a pure-toned, innocent Golden Age, singing with lightness and fleetness and exercising consistent vocal control and an impressive precision in the higher registers. Typical was the delicate flourish which embodies the lines ‘If sometimes here I go in search of peace, the nightingale for flies around singing, pauses in flight and answers: peace’ in Doyle’s opening aria (‘Se qui pace talor vo cercando’), which would happily have substituted for the bird-song mimicry which Vivaldi incorporates joyfully into his concertos. Similarly, ‘Al mio seno il pargoletto’ (which Vivaldi borrowed from his 1716 opera Arsilda, regina di Ponto) was characterised by charmingly fluid, clear lines and arcs: ‘At my breast I will feed the little Baby on milk alone, sucked there with unsullied lips.’ The soprano used the barest sprinkle of vibrato which graced the role with freshness and refinement, but at times I longed for a little more depth and colour, particularly as the arias themselves lacked any notable variety of vocal style. The Part 2 aria ‘Giace languente’ (Conquered Fate) found Doyle at her best: following a minor-key recitative to which the theorbo’s expressive spread chords (Eligio Quinterio) had lent poignancy, this was singing of agility and stronger expressive presence, as the soprano engaged thoughtfully with the energetic woodwind interspersions.

Virtù was a figure of dignity and regality as crafted by Hilary Summers. Her contralto is silky and full but she restrained its more voluptuous layers and used its depth to convey sincerity and profundity. Her tuning was impeccable and the melodic line focused and fluent, most particularly in the Part 2 aria ‘Stelle, con vostra pace’ (modelled on an aria from Vivaldi’s Arsilda), in which she sustained a flowing melody against an assertive unison line for violins. ‘Così sol nell’aurora’, which began with the violins’ gentle pastoral prelude, showed off the contralto’s nimbleness of voice and closed with an exciting instrumental diminuendo to depict the ‘sun, with his shining rays appear among the stars, full of splendours’. Summers’ arias were also notable for the clarity of the diction, which was aided by her obvious familiarity with the role.

The ladies’ voices blended appealingly in their duets, but it was David Wilson-Johnson who had the lion’s share of the virtuosity to negotiate. The baritone was secure in the more challenging numbers such as ‘L’alta lor gloria immortale’, with its racing vocal line, and the pitching in La Senna’s first aria, ‘Qui nel profondo’ was very focused as Wilson-Johnson negotiated the nimble lines in unison with the accompaniment. I’d have liked a bit more heroism in ‘L’alta’, though, and while ‘Pietà, dolcezza’ which opens Part 2 was expressively phrased — and the preceding recitative featured a wonderfully quite plummet at the close — the gentleness of Wilson-Johnson’s baritone was rather subsumed by the forceful instrumental bass lines. The final chorus is in four parts, and tenor Tom Robson made a brief appearance to form the quartet.

The arias succeeded one another apace and King kept things swinging along, his swift, sharp hand gestures supplemented by twists of the shoulder, nudges of the elbow and nimble sways. But, this patchwork score — there are copious musical borrowings from Vivaldi’s earlier works and textual borrowings from his operas Apollo in Tempe, Calisto in orsa among others — required more consistently penetrating vocal performances and, perhaps, more lavish orchestral accompaniment, to triumph over the short-comings which even King’s evident, unflagging enthusiasm could not quite overcome.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

The King’s Consort: Robert King — conductor, Julia Doyle — soprano (as L’Età dell’Oro), Hilary Summers — contralto (as La Virtù), David Wilson-Johnson — baritone (as La Senna), Tom Robson — tenor (as Chorus).

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 3rd May 2016

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