The English Concert, Barbican, London
Orpheus in the Underworld, Britten Theatre, London
La voix humaine, Kings Place, London

Even with a last-minute change of soloist, a choral society staple is sung with outstanding poise and poignancy

The publishing sensation of the 18th century, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater remains the composer's best-known work, its sculptural beauty undeniably enhanced by the tragedy of his early death at the age of 26. It is easy to succumb to the opening movement's grief-drugged walking bass and sighing suspensions. (Pergolesi had already used these in his Salve Regina.) But what of the rest? What of the panting trills, the up-tempo, major-key flames of judgement, the scandalous physicality of Neapolitan passion? To northern European ears, much of the Stabat Mater sounds impious, even flippant. Yet Harry Bicket's exquisitely poised reading with Susan Gritton, Sara Mingardo and The English Concert revealed a work of consummate seriousness and pathos.

This was a Stabat Mater in the model of an altarpiece, its opening and closing duets as clear-eyed and consoling as a pietà, the movements between them miniature dramas of scourging and sorrow. From the scorching trills of "Cujus animam gementem", to the revulsion and horror of "Quae morebat", the violent shifts between major and minor in "Quis est homo", and the gasping syllables of "Vidit suum", the crucifixion is related in striking instrumental detail. Though Anna Caterina Antonacci had been scheduled to sing until a few hours before the performance, Gritton brought a purity of timbre that ideally matched Mingardo's grave contralto, adding to the quality of prayerfulness in Bicket's measured interpretation. After a neat account of Handel's Concerto Grosso No 6, Opus 6, Mingardo's balmy performance of Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus was stylishly supported by muted violins, delicate continuo work from theorbist William Carter and an enchanting viola d'amore solo from Catherine Martin.

Pitched somewhere between the Marx Brothers and Are You Being Served?, and delivered with a double-dose of double-entendres in Jeremy Sams's English translation, Liam Steel's Royal College of Music production of Orpheus in the Underworld wins this year's award for most amusing use of a pepper-grinder in a comic opera. Offenbach's irresistible 1858 satire on marital boredom among the heroes and heroines of antiquity is blessed with a divine score, its orchestration a moreish confection of mellow woodwind, zinging strings, Gluckian soundbites, hedonistic dances and a violin concerto, its arias brilliantly translating sexual excitement into giddy streams of coloratura. Add choreography, dialogue and a love duet between a woman and a fly (Jupiter disguised), and Orpheus is a challenge for any company, but I've rarely seen a cast enjoy themselves so much.

With Thebes transformed into a by-the-hour hotel, sheep into giggling knitwear models, Mount Olympus into a health spa, and Hades into a nightclub (designs by Chloe Lamford), Steel conjured a performance of terrific vivacity and energy from the RCM students. Annabel Mountford was the nubile Eurydice, her marriage to Orpheus (Edward Hughes) long cooled into mutual antipathy, her dalliances with Pluto (Anthony Gregory) and Jupiter (Samuel Evans) a gymnastic display of female silliness and swaggering male vanity.

Everyone knew what they were doing and why. Cutesome cameos from Eleanor Dennis as the Amazonian and distinctly un-chaste Diana, Nicolas Agius-Darmanin as a high-camp flight-attendant Mercury, Emilie Alford as a hippie Venus, Victoria Gray as a perma-tanned Scouse Juno, and Edward Grint as the perpetual inebriate, John Styx, kept the comic momentum, while Rosie Aldridge's battleaxe Public Opinion had the last laugh. Michael Rosewell's idiomatic conducting and Erzsebet Racz's mellifluous violin solo made this a toothsome pre-Christmas treat, outstripping the work of some of Britain's smaller professional companies.

We end, as we began, with a female voice in despair. Though Poulenc was a devout Catholic, there is no consolation for the nameless heroine of La voix humaine, performed by Claire Booth in the first evening of Transition Projects' Kings Place residency. Booth is an astonishingly composed, fearless performer, never needlessly demonstrative, always expressive, and here she seemed to outgrow director Netia Jones's cross-hatched video imagery of telephone wires and spattered ink, and the trappings of Skype and mobile phones. Pianist Christopher Glynn subtly indicated her voiceless ex-lover's coolness and distaste. Jones's visual counterpoint was more apt in Alasdair Beaton's crisp performance of Berio's neoclassical Petite Suite, the bridge between La voix humaine and Booth's effortless Sequenza III – a different sort of crisis: a cadenza without a cadence.



Next W eek:

Anna Picard hears counter-tenors Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky in Purcell, with Ensemble Artaserse.

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