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Sonia Prina
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Early Gluck arias at the Wigmore Hall

If composers had to be categorised as either conservatives or radicals, Christoph Willibald Gluck would undoubtedly be in the revolutionary camp, lauded for banishing display, artifice and incoherence from opera and restoring simplicity and dramatic naturalness in his ‘reform’ operas.

Sonia Prina and laBarocca perform Gluck at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sonia Prina


But, this performance of Gluck arias from opera seria from the 1740s suggested that there is less different between the music of Gluck’s early operas and the later reform works than is sometimes inferred. And, this is not surprising when we know that Gluck included revised versions of numbers from the 1749 Ezio in Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and that Telemaco (1765) borrowed from La Sofonisba of 1744.

The earlier Italian operas were among those performed at the Wigmore Hall by Milanese contralto Sonia Prina and the Italian baroque ensemble laBarocca. Prina presented a series of arias, interspersed with instrumental sinfonia and dances, in which Metastasio’s florid metaphors and banal repetitions were proven to be anything but dramatically inert and characterless. Such is the strength of Prina’s vocal character and dramatic presence that even lines such as ‘And just when I was trying to save myself/ from a treacherous rock,/ I crashed into another rock,/ worse than before’ had animation and conviction.

Prina grabs one’s attention in many ways. Dressed in post-punk black, she was more rebel Goth than historical royal, and yet she was instantly able to enter the affekt of any given aria, taking us deep into the emotional states of the Roman generals, mythical prince, infatuated step-mother and cross-dressing queen whom she impersonated. The recital might have been subtitled ‘Heroes in Love’ but several of the protagonists were pining, lamenting and denouncing Cupid’s darts, and Prina showed us the heat of their rage and the depths of their despair. Although occasionally prone to exaggeration - and after a while I did wish she would stop swaying and jigging so distractingly - Prina displayed impressive dramatic insight and a vocal technique which could communicate it.

This contralto is the genuine article: her low register, smoky and dark, surges unforced from the chest, while at the top she can find a real gloss. Her voice isn’t particularly large but it filled the Hall easily, as even in quieter moments there was no lessening in intensity. Technically assured, she rattled off the coloratura with meticulousness but still managed to make it serve the characterisation. The excitement and contrasts, as Prina leapt daringly between registers, sometimes took sway over the elegance and smoothness of the vocal phrase, particularly in the long melismas, but the energy was sustained and in the slower numbers she employed a more relaxed tone.

‘Dal suo gentil semblante’ (Her delicate appearance) from Demetrio (1742) was an urgent opener in which an infatuated queen claims that her love for a peasant can be cured only by death. Three of the Roman general Siface’s arias from La Sofonisba (1744) ran the gamut from torment, through transcendence, to derisive taunting and desperate desire. In ‘M’opprime, m’affana’ (Cruel fate oppresses me), the apparently betrayed husband of Sofonisba spat out his derisive scorn with a punch matched by the strings’ brusque quavers; but, learning of his erroneous judgement, damnation turned to exaltation in ‘Nobil onda’ (Gentle wave). Here, Prina made full use of her considerable range: the opening phrase was full deep and sincere, octave plunges suggested dignity of bearing, while the heights of the coloratura - ‘Più leggera all’aure va’ (the more lightly she rises into the air) - had a lovely gleam. A finely tailed diminuendo marked the end of the B section, in which Siface imagines his soul rising above an oppressive Fate. The virtuosic excesses of the first part of ‘Se in campo armato’ (If on the battlefield) contrasted with the tender pathos evoked by the sobbing pulsing of the B section.

The wishful thinking of ‘Sperai vicino il lido’ (I hoped that the harbour was closed) from Demofoonte (1743) - in which a prince, who has defied his father with a secret marriage to a girl who is next in line for sacrifice to the gods, flees with his beloved in a boat - drew a more unaffected line from Prina until an explosive central section shattered the calm with almost violent forward propulsion.

A highlight of the evening was ‘Se tu vedessi come vegg’io’ (If you could see like I see) from Ippolito (1745), in which Phaedra, infatuated with her step-son Hippolytus, simultaneously voices her delusions and warns him of the fatal consequences which will ensue if he denies her. The lyrical lines were beautifully relaxed yet intense, aptly conveying the conflicted stepmother’s avowals and omens.

Semiramide riconosciuta (1748) marked Gluck’s operatic debut in Vienna: it was composed for the birthday of Empress Maria Theresa and the opening of the newly renovated Burgtheater. Prina gave us a stirring ‘Tradite, sprezzata’ (Betrayed, scorned), depicting with rhetorical ferocity and flexibility the breathless anger of the queen whose deceptions have been exposed. Her despairing reflections, ‘Sentirsi morire/ Dolente, e perdura’ (Feeling like I’m dying, sorrowful, lost), ached with pained sweetness, and the lines were long and expressive. ‘Se Fedele mi brama il regnante’ (If my prince demands that I be faithful) from Ezio (1749, first version) brought the evening to a close, as Prina demonstrated impressive vocal stamina; it was a pity that the final phrases were not effectively supported by the instrumental accompaniment.

laBarocca, formed in Milan in 2008 by conductor Ruben Jais, were lively but at times ungraceful accompanists. Intonation was problematic at the start, especially in the basses, and throughout Jais gave more attention to drama - dynamic contrasts were extreme, accents were hard-edged - than phrasing and tone. The string sound was rather ragged although there was some fine playing from the horn whose warm contributions propelled the music forward.

In the Preface to Alceste, Gluck set out his reform ‘manifesto’: ‘I have made every effort to restore music to its true role of serving the poetry by means of its powers of expression.’ On the evidence of this entertaining and exciting performance by Prina, the music of his pre-reform years was no less pertinent in impact and range of expression.

Claire Seymour

Sonia Prina - soprano; laBarocca - director Ruben Jais.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Le cinesi - Sinfonia, Demetrio - Aria: ‘Dal suo gentil sembiante’, La Sofonisba - Aria: ‘M’opprime m’affana’, Ipermestra - Sinfonia, La Sofonisba - Aria: ‘Nobil onda’, Aria: ‘Se in campo armato’, La Semiramide riconosciuta - Sinfonia, Demofoonte - Aria: ‘Sperai vicino il lido’, Ippollito - Aria: ‘Se tu vedessi come vegg’io’, Orfeo ed Euridice - Ballabili (Dances), La Semiramide riconosciuta - Aria: ‘Tradita, sprezzata’, Ezio - Aria: ‘Se fedele mi brama il regnate’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 28th June 2016.

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