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Concert reviews

"Handel's Rome - Vocal duets by Handel, Steffani and Bononcini"

Lusicinia Quartet
concert: March 21, 2014, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Chi di gloria, duet; Filli, del tuo partire, cantata; La nemica d'amore, scene; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Ahi, nelle sorti umane, duet (HWV 179); Allor ch'io dissi addio, cantata (HWV 80); Lungi n'and Fileno, cantata (HWV 128); N, di voi non vo' fidarmi, duet (HWV 189); Sans y penser, cantata (HWV 155); Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728): Quanto care al cor voi siete, duet

Anna Kellnhofer, Stefanie True, soprano; Anton Baba, cello; Anthony Romaniuk, harpsichord

As a reviewer I sometimes am obliged to watch a DVD with a staged performance of an opera. More often than not that is a bit of an ordeal, not because I am not a great fan of opera in the first place, but especially because of the staging which is often tasteless and almost always unhistorical. I have never been able to understand why interpreters find it important to use historical instruments but don't care twopence about historical staging and acting. The lack of information about this issue is not an excuse: there are several experts who have extensively studied these matters and are certainly willing to share their knowledge. One of them is Benjamin Lazar whose historical staging of Lully's Le bourgeois gentilhomme made such an indelible impression in the Holland Festival Early Music in Utrecht of 2005. Another expert is the Belgian Sigrid T'Hooft who has founded her own dance ensemble Corpo Barocco and is much sought after as a teacher of early staging, acting and dancing. It is good to see on her website that she is frequently involved in performances of early opera.

Recently the Luscinia Quartet gave a series of concerts in the Netherlands, with cantatas and duets by Agostino Steffani, Giovanni Bononcini and George Frideric Handel. The two singers, Stefanie True and Anna Kellnhofer, performed the selected items in costume and with baroque gesturing, under the instruction of Sigrid T'Hooft. This was one of the reasons I decided to attend one of the concerts. The other is that this is fine music, and not that often performed. It is true that some of Handel's chamber cantatas are quite popular, but he has written a large number of them and only a small portion is now and then performed and recorded. Giovanni Bononcini and Steffani fare even worse in concert and on disc.

The programme was presented as a pasticcio of the repertoire which reflects the 'Arcadian' world which is dominated by shepherds and shepherdesses. Such pieces were often performed in the 'academies' which were held in the palaces of the aristocracy in Rome and elsewhere. The cantatas and duets were programmed in such a way that they together told a story of courtship. The pieces were performed more or less without interruption although at various moments the singers had to put other clothes on behind a screen. Anton Baba and Anthony Romaniuk filled the gaps with instrumental pieces which were not specified in the programme.

As I am a great supporter of historical staging and acting I was curious to see how this was going to work out here. I have to say that the concept didn't fully satisfy me. First of all, I am not sure that in Handel's time chamber cantatas were performed this way. It certainly is the way operas were performed, but although chamber cantatas can be considered a kind of 'pocket-size' operas, I wonder whether they were performed with gestures and costumes. Secondly, baroque gesturing only makes sense if the audience can see it. It may be to the advantage of the performer, as Ms T'Hooft writes on her website: "Because of the rhetorical function of gesture, it is clear that it enhances the singers consciousness of the rhetorical parameters hidden in the whole composition, not only in his/her vocal part." However, rhetorics is not only a matter of delivering but also of understanding at the receiving end. Where I was seated I could see pretty little of what happened on the stage. Although there was a kind of stage, it was so low that the part of the audience which was not seated very close to it probably saw little of what was happening. Thirdly, the understanding of the connection between gesturing and the text is made even harder if you have to look on a programme sheet to follow the text. A theatre has the luxury of supertitles, but there is no such thing in a concert. And lastly, as baroque gesturing is by far not as common as the use of period instruments, some instruction of the audiences may be needed. One member of the audience commented that the performance was frumpy. Everyone is entitled to his opinion but that should at least be an informed opinion. Just as about 30 to 40 year ago music lovers needed to learn what the differences were between modern and baroque instruments and how the latter could increase the credibility of a performance of baroque music, today's audiences need more instruction and information in regard of the character of baroque staging and gesturing and why these may be to the advantage of a performance of theatrical early music.

All that said, I certainly enjoyed the performances and the two singers did a great job in integrating gestures into their performances, as far as I could see. I also liked the performances from a musical point of view, although the two singers left a different impression. I have heard Stefanie True at several occasions in the past, live and on disc, and I was a little disappointed about her singing here. Her voice has clearly matured and has become more dramatic. That had a positive influence on her performances of the solo cantatas. At the same time I didn't like a kind of harshness which I noted in her voice, especially when she sang forte - which she did too often, in my opinion. She also used a bit too much vibrato which only made things worse. Fortunately she adjusted her singing to that of Anna Kellnhofer in the duets. The latter was a new name to me and I was impressed by her voice and the way she used it. It is 'sweeter' - so to speak - and her vibrato was more controlled. I liked the fact that in the recitatives both singers took the rhythmic freedom composers expected from performers. This is an aspect where baroque gesturing may indeed help a singer: in recordings performances of recitatives are often a weak spot.

Lastly, the music was great, of course. The programme showed that there is still a large repertoire to be discovered, and that there is no reason to perform the same pieces over and over again. Steffani and Bononcini are still largely unknown quantities whose respective oeuvres deserve to be thoroughly explored, but even in Handel's output there are many pieces which are unjustly neglected. It deserves much praise that the performers had the courage to look beyond the mainstream of cantatas and duets from the early 18th century.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

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