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Performances

Anna Prohaska [Photo © Harald Hoffmann]
04 Aug 2018

Prom 26: Dido and Cleopatra – Queens of Fascination

In this, her Proms debut, Anna Prohaska offered something akin to a cantata of two queens, complementary and contrasted: Dido and Cleopatra. Returning in a sense to her ‘early music’ roots – her career has always been far richer, more varied, but that world has always played an important part – she collaborated with the Italian ‘period’ ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini.

Prom 26: Dido and Cleopatra – Queens of Fascination

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Anna Prohaska [Photo © Harald Hoffmann]

 

It made for a splendid late-night concert, a fine mix of repertoire familiar and (to me, at any rate) unfamiliar, any minor reservations I may have entertained relating entirely to the orchestra and conductor. Prohaska, if I may be forgiven for saying so, crowned herself queen of this repertoire, notwithstanding the frankly unpromising surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall.

We began, as indeed we should end, with Purcell, with Dido and Aeneas: one of the very greatest of English operas and indeed of ‘Baroque’ operas, if that problematical term may be held to mean anything at all. ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pint pot,’ that legendary conductor of what was then not quite ‘early musicke’, Raymond Leppard, called it. There was no question from the Overture that Antonini was more at home with these, ‘his’ musicians than he had been with members of the LSO Chamber Orchestra in a concert last year at the Barbican. For one thing, the acoustic was kind to the instruments, lessening intonational problems, which were in any case rarely grave. Resplendent, regal in gold, our soprano walked onto the stage as the Overture drew to a close, ready to give a rich-toned, clear, beautifully ornamented account of Dido’s first number. Here, as elsewhere, what struck me about her ornamentation, aside from the awe-inspiring ease with which it and any other coloratura were despatched, was how it did not really register as ‘ornamentation’. It was musical and indeed verbal expression, created seemingly on the spot. (Whether that were actually the case is neither here nor there.) Her lightly acted performance also proved just the ticket. In homage perhaps to Goldilocks, another queen of sorts, it was neither too much nor too little.

Christoph Graupner’s Singspiel for Hamburg, Dido, Königin von Carthago (1707), was quite new to me. It is one of those curious – to our ears, yet not necessarily to those of the time – works written in German and Italian, standard Italian arias doing their thing whilst the action was largely advanced in the vernacular. I should certainly be keen to learn more. The Egyptian princess Menalippe’s ‘Holdestes Lispeln der spielenden Fluthen’ proved vividly pictorial. One could almost see – one could certainly hear – those rippling waters through ravishing instrumental playing. This may be too early and the wrong country too, but Poussin more than once came to my mind. When later Prohaska turned to the Queen of Carthage herself, we heard first a German accompagnato (‘Der Himmel ist von Donner Keylen schwer…’) followed by its Italian aria, ‘Infido Cupido’. This was very much music written and communicated in the terms of early eighteenth-century opera seria. Hearing it in this particular context, we understood both its roots in earlier opera and much of what distinguished it from its predecessors too. Prohaska’s stylistic awareness is never a sterile thing, ‘dogma’ in the slightly misleading popular understanding of the term; it is and here was always put to expressive, dramatic use. Much the same might be said of her performance of the tempest aria that ensued: of a genre yet not over-determined by it.

In between the Graupner excerpts, we heard music by Antonio Sartorio and Matthew Locke. The former’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto contains, according to the programme note, no fewer than sixty-five arias. Prohaska gave us two, ‘Non voglio amar’ and ‘Quando voglio’, the first furious – with foot-stamping – and, that inescapable word, tempestuous. I could not help but wonder whether the musicians might have been better off without a conductor in the first; Antonini looked a little awkward and the results might have been a little freer. No harm was done, though, and his provision of a recorder obbligato in the latter aria offered winning counterpoint to the woman of desires revealed by our queen of song. The Locke excerpt offered an ineffably ‘English’ contrast, much of it mysteriously veiled, harking back to the days – still current, of course, yet somewhat old-fashioned – of the viol consort.

Handel was next on the menu. Antonini’s way with the Concerto grosso, op.6 no.8, made me long for something a little grander, a little more aware of harmonic motion. This is, after all, orchestral music. Tastes being what they are today, that was never likely to be the case, though. I liked the way the Siciliana, its fifth movement, harked back in context to the seventeenth century. A hard-driven account of its Allegro successor proved less welcome. Handel’s own Giulio Cesare followed, its libretto derived by Nicola Francesco Haym from that of Giacomo Bussani for Sartorio. What a wonderful idea – obvious, one might think, yet unusual – it was to offer excerpts from both operas. In Cleopatra’s ‘Che sento? Oh dio! … Se pietà di me non senti’, Prohaska’s shading to dramatic ends opened up a new creative, expressive world. I felt – and I suspect much of the audience did likewise – a window into understanding of the queen’s character had been opened wide, even just by this account of a single aria. More please!

Dario Castello’s D minor Sonata, published in 1629, performed its bridging role well. It is perhaps not especially thrilling music, but it has its moments of interest; it also benefited, I think, from being given as chamber music, without a conductor. Moving forward a few years, yet remaining in Venice, we heard from Cavalli’s Dido, Prohaska adopting just the right – to my ears, at least – slightly post-Monteverdian air. (Yes, the great man was still alive in 1641, but that is hardly the point.) I can hardly offer greater praise than to say that her singing brought Frederica von Stade to mind, both in command of line and in its generosity of spirit. Hasse’s aria, from his Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, sounded very much again from the world of later opera seria. Prohaska’s coloratura probably deserves another endorsement here: impeccable, both ‘musically’ and ‘dramatically’, not that the distinction is especially meaningful.

And so, we returned to Purcell. The Chaconne from The Fairy Queen had me long for Britten’s more generous way with such music, yet unquestionably it danced. A vivid narration from Dido and Aeneas, the Second Woman’s ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’, was imbued with quite the sense of drama, given brevity and (relative) lack of context. Dido’s Lament was sung with expressive freedom that never approached licence, a reminder of Leppard’s Tristan­ designation, dignified without a hint of sentimentality. As an encore, we heard ‘Fear no danger to ensue’, the duet part taken by Antonini on recorder. A lovely concert, then, but in the best sense an educative one too. Bildung, one might say, is an excellent thing indeed.

Mark Berry


Cast and production information:

Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: Overture and ‘Ah! Belinda, I am pressed with torment’; Christoph Graupner: Dido, Königin von Carthago: ‘Holdestes Lispeln der spielenden Fluthen’’; Antonio Sartorio: Giulio Cesare in Egitto: ‘Non voglio amar’; Matthew Locke: The Tempest: ‘The Second Musick: Curtain Tune’; Sartorio: Giulio Cesare: ‘Quando voglio’; Graupner: Dido: ‘Der Himmel ist von Donner … Infido Cupido’, ‘Agitato da tempeste’; George Frideric Handel: Concerto grosso in C minor, op.6 no.8; Handel: Giulio Cesare in egitto: ‘Che sento? Oh dio! … Se pietà di me non senti’; Dario Costello: Sonata no.15 in D minor; Cavalli: Didone: ‘Re de’ Getuli altero … Il mio marito’; Hasse: Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra: ‘Morte col fiero aspetto’; Purcell: The Fairy Queen: ‘Chaconne – Dance for Chinese Man and Woman’; Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’, ‘Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth’. Anna Prohaska (soprano)/Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday 2 August 2018.

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