Arianna in Creta, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican


While Mendelssohn’s apologists struggle to hoist their man into the limelight, Handel’s chariot sails serenely through the heavens, with three ace period-instrument performances in as many days.

Christopher Hogwood’s production of ‘Arianna in Creta’ was the first major British one in living memory, and the Barbican was packed. Such is the draw of Handel - and of Hogwood’s Academy.

The plot concerns the slaying of the Minotaur plus two parallel amorous misunderstandings, but its raison d’etre – as much now, as in 1734 – lies in the arias which showcase the voices. Mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager should have sung Theseus but was sick; Kristina Hammarstrom, who stood in, had an unusually tensile purity of tone. And as the work unfolded, one saw how everything turned on the contrasts between solo voices – soprano/mezzo, high/low, light/dark. And riches were revealed: the evening was studded with arias of transcendent beauty. Soprano Lisa Milne made one pairing with contralto Sonia Prina; Swedish soprano Miah Persson – who stole the show with a heart-stopping lament - made another with mezzo Hammarstrom; when the latter pair duetted, a light-dark synthesis was finally achieved. No praise can be too high for the instrumental support.

In the chancel at St John’s Smith Square, Ivor Bolton and the Concerto Koln were packed like sardines for a spirited performance of the rarely-heard oratorio ‘Athalia’. This too was a revelation, partly because the crack German period ensemble had the benefit of four outstanding British soloists: tenor James Gilchrist, whose voice and manner always lights up the stage; bass Neal Davies, in blisteringly forceful form; soprano Sarah Fox at her most expressive; and Iestyn Davies, who has one of the most glorious counter-tenor voices in the world today. Okay, the plot was clumsy, but who could object when borne along on such a sublime combination of arias, duets, and choruses? Time flew.

Meanwhile at the South Bank, Marc Minkowski and his aptly-named Orchestra La Scintilla delivered a coruscating performance of ‘Agrippina’. Operatic comedy doesn’t come much darker than this, though Vesselina Kasarova’s frumpily-mugging incarnation of the title role was more Wicked Witch than the Thatcherish creature one expects. We got stunning singing from counter-tenor Jose Lemos, mezzos Anna Bonitatibus and Marijana Mijanovic, and baritone Laszlo Polgar as the emperor Claudius, whose benign irruption into this cauldron of intrigue really did feel like a deus ex machina.

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