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Hawksmoor smiles

Christchurch, Spitalfields
06/23/2006 -  
George Frideric Handel: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
Rebecca Hodgetts (soprano), Nina Lejderman (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), George Humphreys (bass baritone)

William Christie (conductor)

Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra and Chorus

The Spitalfields Festival, which takes place in both June and December every year, has long provided a fine mix of new and repertoire music that reflects the fluid diversity of the Spitalfields area. Spitalfields, originally one of the shanty towns that grew up just outside the mediaeval city of London, has been home to new immigrants since well before the sixteenth century, when Huguenots arrived in large numbers from France, followed by Russian and central European Jewish emigrés in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Bengalis in the twentieth. These three groups have dominated the area in turn -- the name of Fournier Street, next to Christchurch, is written in Bengali as well as English -- but there have been many other influences, and whatever you feel like eating, you can probably get it in Spitalfields, either in the market or in one of the many restaurants and cafés. But there are now also some high-end chains on Commercial Street, and many of the formerly grim old houses converted into cramped apartment buildings are now reconverted to almost as cramped but much more expensive flats for city workers who like to be able to walk to the office. There are also a fair number of artists in residence, including Tracey Emin, who runs an idiosyncratic grocer's behind the stressed facade of an old milliner's shop, and the composer Diana Burrell, the incoming director of the Spitalfields Festival.

Burrell's predecessor, Jonathan Dove, has achieved something close to sainthood in his work with young people and community groups of all kinds, as well as with his superbly effective reductions of major scores, including the Ring, for very small orchestras. In his brief remarks before the performance of L'Allegro, Dove said that he had been trying to get the work performed in the festival for years. He didn't say specifically why, but it is difficult to think of a musical work that combines supreme Englishness (words by Milton in pastoral mode, music by immigrant-gone-native Handel with many a nod to Purcell) with the most basic question about the nature of human happiness. To Milton's youthful academic evocations of mirth and melancholy, Charles Jennens at Handel's request added a comparable depiction of a rather Anglican middle way. Jennens' poetry is rather less good than Milton's school exercise, but Handel provides one glorious duet, As steals the morn, just before the end that comes close to making the case for reason and measure.

William Christie's work in general has more affinity with the mirthful side of L'Allegro than the melancholy -- a performance at the Proms a few years ago had the arena hopping with glee -- but the young soloists in Christchurch were well on top of the distinctions. The penseroso soprano, Rebecca Hodgetts, was full and suitably artful of voice, and particularly lovely in the duet with the flute in Sweet bird. The allegro soprano, Nina Lejderman, was less polished but also less effortful in her voice production, again entirely appropriately. The tenor Allan Clayton was entertainingly bumptious and showed the most developed personality of the singers. Bass baritone George Humphreys was less focussed, but still jolly enough. The student chorus seemed to be having fun, but the orchestra, especially the solo cello and, even more, the horn and flute, were positively wonderful. Christie appeared to be directing with an eyelash, if that, but there was evidence of good rehearsal in a sublime overall performance.

Hawksmoor’s gloomy church, recently restored to grandeur if not to beauty, was a surprisingly good setting: its acoustics were less resonant than the monumental Roman-bath interior suggested, and with a bit of music in it it became almost perfectly Anglican in its decorum.

Next day, over at the Coliseum, an altogether jollier place, though you wonder what Cicero and Clodius and Caesar and Pompey are saying to each other on those medallions, the last performance in the present season of David Alden's Ariodante was gloriously miserable. Ariodante is the sister opera of Alcina and presents the downside of illusion in contrast to the pleasures of Alcina's isle. Ruggiero merely has to grow out of his adolescent desires while Ariodante has to learn to doubt the painful evidence of his eyes in everyday life. Alden brings out fully the baroque themes of the opera with modern-baroque visuals a long way after Titian, Velasquez and Goya. This must be the best sung version of this production, without a weak vocal link. Alice Coote was somewhat reminiscent of the great Anne Murray in the title role, and at least as dramatically good as well. Of the rest of an outstanding cast, Paul Nilon was again positively heroic as Lurcanio, a dog of a role which he made wonderful. Indeed, perhaps because it was the end of the run, the singers seemed to be competing to sing the best and boldest cadenzas and generally to give it welly. One minute problem was that although Patricia Bardon sang Polinesso as well as the role can be sung, she is definitely not a sexually predatory Duke, even with a hedgehog on a bad-hair day trying to impersonate a beard on her chin. And many of the audience must have seen and heard her as Erde, a role for which she was born. Polinesso was written for a mezzo, but it is difficult to erase memories of Christopher Robson's scarily disgusting performance, even though many might prefer to.

HE Elsom



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