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The boy done good

11/08/2005 -  
Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in C major RV116/114
George Frideric Handel: "Bel contento" from Flavio
Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in A minor for two violins Op. 3 No. 8
Tomaso Albinoni: "Selvagge amenità" from Engelberta
George Frideric Handel: "Cara sposa" from Rinaldo
George Frideric Handel: "Dove sei" from Rodelinda
Nicola Porpora: "Va per le vene il sangue" from Il trionfo di Camilla
Francesco Geminiani after Arcangelo Corelli: Follia (Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D minor
Antonio Lotti: "Discordi pensieri" from Teofane
George Frideric Handel: "Al lampo di armi" from Giulio Cesare

Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor)
Ottavio Dantone (director/harpsichord)

Accademia Bizantina

A programme note for Andreas Scholl's Barbican concert, based on his CD of arias performed by the castrato superstar Senesino, compares opera in the first half of the eighteenth century to soccer today: singers were international figures who moved around Europe for huge salaries, and composers were courted by opera houses like successful managers. (Though Handel was more Bill Shankly than José Mourinho or Arsène Wenger.) Scholl is an international star of a different kind, though, one of a handful of opera singers with major-label contracts whose following spans those who like their music entertaining and tolerate opera and specialists in the singers' areas of expertise. This is rather less than the iconic status of the castratos or of Beckham and Henri, but like the latter and like his musical peers – currently Renée Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel -- he combines extreme talent, with obvious, even stereotypical, characteristics of his national and local origins, apparent personal integrity and just a touch of quirky individualism, for the total of which a brief synonym is "cool".

Yet Scholl's profile – a little staged opera, a grand progress of recitals and a stellar but tasteful recording history – recalls most those of a couple of British singers from half a century ago, Kathleen Ferrier and Alfred Deller. The microphone loves his voice as it did Ferrier's, and his extension of the counter-tenor repertoire is still a touch transgressive, as Deller's more limited exploration of Dowland and Purcell was. Scholl's retro styling and his almost total lack of theatrical art heighten the similarity, and perhaps add to his unthreatening appeal to an older, commercially viable audience. In contrast, most counter-tenors these days study opera like other singers and flourish in a baroque theatrical environment where danger is never far away.

Scholl, or rather, his promoters, needed the Barbican hall to accommodate the numbers who wanted to hear him, but his programme was a measured recital more appropriate for the Wigmore Hall. Senesino was famous for his expression and artistry as much as for his vocal fireworks – he created the role of Giulio Cesare, who, in spite of his military prowess, has as many expressive arias as barnstormers, and the wonderfully sensuous "Se in fiorito" -- and the programme was built around three slow arias of marital love, "Bel contento" (from Flavio), "Cara sposa" and "Dove sei", in which Scholl excelled. It ended with "Al lampo dell'armi", Cesare's one out-and-out but brief heroic aria, but the other three arias were lacking in contrast, and of them only Popora's had any emotional teeth. Indeed, the Albinoni aria was so inconsequential that Scholl had an uncharacteristic memory lapse that failed to do any noticeable harm to anything.

There's no doubt of Scholl's talent or musicality, and there was some beautiful singing in the evening. But the baroque danger came from the band, Accademia Bizantina, whose occasionally haywire enthusiasm risked overshadowing Scholl's more measured performance. Indeed, their instrumental items, especially La Follia, were close to being the high points of the evening. They and their director Ottavio Dantone, who looked strangely anxious throughout the concert, worked well with Scholl, though, and provided sympathetic obligatos where needed.

HE Elsom



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