Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Monday May 9 2011
Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Ann Hallenberg, mezzo soprano. Les Talens Lyriques.
Works by Broschi, Johann-Christian Bach, Porpora, Giacomelli, Hasse and Leo
To avoid a single, solemn ceremony, we were told in a speech at the start of this concert, when celebrating their twentieth anniversary, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques have chosen to tour a beautifully crafted concert of 18th-century gems, including a generous (the unfortunate singer might well say gruelling) selection of arias composed for Farinelli, who – because of the film - played an important part in the group’s performing history. I’m not usually a great recital fan, either on disc or in concert, as I find a whole evening of arias a bit like eating a box of chocolates in one sitting. But in this case, having, for one reason or another, recently been mightily impressed by clips of Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg on YouTube (after recently being mightily unimpressed by some of her consoeurs), I wanted to find out if a live performance would confirm I could really believe my ears as well as the microphones. It did (more later), and was, as I said, so well crafted a programme that there was no sense of surfeit at all.
I wondered, as I sat there, how early on in their career I first heard Rousset and his band. It must have been pretty early, and since then I’ve come to admire very much their smooth-grained, raw silk sound, neither over-feathery nor over-ripe, and the ever-youthful Rousset’s sprightly, springy conducting, a pleasure to see as well as hear. Who else could carry off those “romantic poet,” frock-coated, black velvet evening suits, complete with floppy bow tie, he wears? As well as accompanying the evening’s spectacular arias spectacularly, they gave us, in the middle of each half, ripping performances of (a) a very fine, very dramatic three movement symphony by J-Christian Bach and (b) an equally fine and only slightly less dramatic overture - in effect, also a three-movement symphony - by Hasse.
But I imagine it was the arias above all that drew people to the Théâtre des Champs Elysées – along with Ann Hallenberg, who clearly, from conversations I overheard, had fans in the hall.
Her voice is mature but fluid and feminine and the timbre is rich, ripe, round and fruity: not a dark, velvety Bordeaux but a lighter –and rarer – Burgundy. It seems she can do anything she likes with it without accident. Runs, or even – harder still – arpeggios at any speed are legibly (I mean you could take dictation) both rhythmically and note perfect: “C’est étonnant,” said my wide-eyed neighbour at one stage. Even when she floats a pianissimo at the top, and you think it might go shaky (as it would with so many other singers) it doesn’t. This sense of absolute, even effortless - though I’ve no doubt there’s huge effort behind it - mastery also runs through her shaping and phasing, maintained (rather than abandoned, as by many other singers) in the agile passages: i.e. they may be fast but they are still sung, musically.
Ann Hallenberg is also a natural actress, in both senses: a born one and an unforced, sincere one. An actress, but in no way actressy. On the contrary, that sincerity is a key element in her engaging overall stage presence: she exudes not so much charm as enjoyment, bouncing and swaying to the music and interacting not only with the conductor, but with the musicians, individually and collectively with a look, a smile or a gesture, and with the audience. In terms of what you might call "charismatic niceness," the only singer who came immediately to mind was Caballé; and she showed Caballé’s sense of fun in her choice of extravagant, shimmering neo-baroque costumes, running even to a jewelled and blue-feathered helmet (marvellously not matching the blue of her dark, swaggering cape) for the last two scheduled arias.
After the first encore, a giant, multi-layered, multi-coloured cake was wheeled out with fireworks blazing and candles for Rousset, taken by surprise, to blow out with childish excitement. You imagined Hallenberg wishing she could wear it, not just eat it. Then we had a serious moment with “Lascia ch’io pianga.” And finally, after the mezzo gestured to Rousset to go steady, he turned impishly to the audience, announced “Presto” and launched into a mad, murderously fast and furious Porpora aria. I can think of no other mezzo in this repertoire likely to offer eleven* such arias in an evening; and none that I’ve heard in the past few years able to carry them off so flawlessly. With others, you might (on rare occasions) get all the notes but lose musicality, diction, projection or any sense of ease; or get great acting skills to compensate for dodgy runs; or whimpering as a substitute for feeling. I name no names (you can, if you have time to kill, browse back over the past eight years and see who I have in mind). But with Ann Hallenberg you get the lot: mastery and sincerity. I know of nobody better in the baroque repertoire today. In both design and execution, this was a great concert – and a rare one, in that it brought Parisians to their feet.
*I originally wrote ten. How I made such a stupid mistake is beyond me, though it's no great surprise. I was graciously corrected by someone who could count. Eleven then; and blow me if she didn't go and do it all over again the next night in Caen.
Riccardo BROSCHI (1698 - 1756)
Son qual nave ch’agitata (from Artaserse)
Ombra fedele anch ‘io (from Idaspe)
Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)
Symphony in G minor Op. 6 No. 6
Nicola PORPORA (1686 - 1768)
Si pietoso il tuo labbro (from Semiramide riconosciuta (1729))
Geminiano GIACOMELLI (c1692-1740)
Già presso al termine (from Adriano in Siria (1733))
Nicola PORPORA (17686 - 1768)
Alto Giove (from Polifemo (1735))
Geminiano GIACOMELLI (c1692-1740
Passagier che incerto (from Adriano in Siria (1733))
Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783)
Overture to Cleofide
Leonardo LEO (1694-1744)
Che legge spietata
Cervo in bosco
(from Catone in Utica (1729))