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Reviews

Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall
01 Apr 2017

Two rarities from the Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall

A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.

Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Benjamin Hulett

 

William Boyce's quasi-dramatic concert work Solomon, termed a ‘serenata’, did much to ensure the composer’s rise to prominence in the 1740s, and was performed annually between 1742 until 1761. Thereafter it had a distinguished performance history until the early nineteenth century, when increasingly conservative audiences deemed its libretto - derived from the Song of Solomon rather than the account of the king’s reign given in I Kings and II Chronicles as adapted in Handel’s oratorio on the same subject - overly lyrical and sensuous. The Musica Britannica edition also informs that Solomon featured alongside other large-scale choral works by Boyce in a festival of the composer’s music held in July 1749 at Cambridge University when he was awarded his doctorate in music - a striking honour for an English-born composer at a time when Handel was at the peak of his powers.

Boyce’s Solomon has little in common with its Handelian namesake though. It is a secular dialogue between an unidentified He and She, which seems - on the evidence of the excerpts offered - to have little to do with the biblical monarch. Curnyn, leading from the keyboard, directed a stylish and observant account. After a bright-toned overture for strings and oboe - a taut and sprightly opening, racing Allegro and flowing, dignified Larghetto - there followed a sequence of recitatives and airs in which soloists Mary Bevan and Benjamin Hulett revealed for us the delights of Boyce’s melodic invention.

Hulett’s tenor was direct and dramatic in the first Air, ‘Fair and Comely is my love’; he enjoyed the amorous audaciousness of the text - the imagery is replete with ‘wanton locks’ and ‘flowing lips’ - and created a strong sense of character. The spreading chords of an exciting and restless theorbo continuo (Josep Maria Marti Duran) enriched Bevan’s recitative response, ‘Forebear, O charming swain, forebear’, and her subsequent air, ‘O fill with cooling juice the bowl’, leapt across the registers with agility and strength, the sprung rhythms of the octave strings and trumpets (David Hendry and David Carstairs) having established an intense and heated mood in the instrumental introduction. Bevan’s soprano is bright and clear, and has alluring warmth at the bottom, and she brought real human feeling to the air.

The duet, ‘Together let us range the fields’, lilted with bucolic ease, the slithering runs in the fiddles suggesting the carefree frivolity of the lovers. At first, She followed His lead, then the roles reversed, before an ecstatic melismatic climax. The gentle accompaniment of Hulett’s final recitative, ‘My fair’s a garden of delight’ prepared for the delicious closing aria, with chorus (8 singers including the evening’s soloists), in which the shimmering strings and woodwind obbligato painted a steamy picture of summer’s ‘southern breezes’, ‘blooming trees’ and ‘spicy garden’, culminating in the choric assertion: ‘Ye southern breezes, gently blow,/ That sweets from every part may flow’. Curnyn encouraged the voices to retreat and then surge with the force of the breeze, imbuing the climax with theatricality.

Boyce’s music has great charm but is no match for the stunning, beautiful invention of Handel’s Alceste - clearly the work of a composer in his prime, and a rare example of his incidental music for the theatre. Dating from fairly late in Handel’s career, it was composed for a 1750 production of Tobias Smollett’s adaptation of Euripides’ dramatisation of Admetus of Thessaly’s love for Alceste, a subject which Handel had already set in his 1727 opera Ademto. In the event, it never made it to the stage, but the surviving masque-like medley of fairly short songs, chorus and instrumental numbers - none of which involve the main protagonists - recalls the semi-operas of Purcell. The mixture is magnetic: we have a wedding feast, an Elysian welcome scene, a descent to the Underworld, and a euphoric endin - all of which delight.

Curnyn recorded Alceste for the Chaconne label in 2012, with Hulett as one of the soloists, and the tenor did not disappoint here, making a striking impact in his initial recitative, ‘Ye Happy People’, and interacting with the chorus with energy and excitement in ‘Triumph, Hymen, in the pair’. Hulett matched the agitation of the running violin passagework in ‘Ye swift minutes ye fly’, singing confidently off-score and with agility. He showed his Baroque credentials in the melismas, coloratura and decorated cadences of ‘Enjoy the sweet Elysian grove’, trilling with pointed brilliance.

After a sinuous aria, ‘Still caressing, and caress’d’, Bevan relished the melodious beauty of ‘Gentle Morpheus, son of night’, with its soothing string accompaniment and easeful phrases; Bevan had a good sense of the scale of her voice in the Wigmore auditorium, and found surprising oppositions of brightness and darkness in this lovely aria which manifests all of Handel’s skill and sensitivity.

James Platt tapped both darkness and drollness in Charon’s display of clumsy foolishness, ‘Ye flerting shades, I come’. The Chorus punched out the text of the concluding ‘All hail, thou mighty son of Jove!’ with a power to match the orchestra’s rhythmic rhetoric.

The vocal items were preceded by a robust account of Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.1 with section leaders Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber whipping up a vigorous energy which, at the evening's close, found its complement in the whirling symphonic conclusion to Alceste.

It was a pleasure to enjoy such suave and sure-footed playing and singing by the EOC.

Claire Seymour

Early Opera Company: Christian Curnyn (director), Mary Bevan (soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), James Platt (bass)

Handel: Concerto Grosso in G major Op.6 No.1 HWV319; Boyce: Excerpts from Solomon; Handel: Alceste HWV4.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 29th March 2017.

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