A splendid performance of Handels Alcina with Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble under Marc Minkowski in December was followed on this occasion by a more unusual outing Vivaldis 1727 opera Orlando Furioso with Jean-Christophe Spinosi and Ensemble Matheus. Until recently, Vivaldis operas have lost out on the Baroque opera revival, both in the theatre and the concert hall. But with a series of recordings of complete works, arias and overtures by Nave over the last couple of years, this unfair neglect seems to have been stemmed.
Ill health bedevilled two of the principal singers, although satisfactory replacements were found. Mezzo soprano Franziska Gottwald stepped in for Jennifer Larmore and gave an increasingly strong interpretation of the role of Alcina, the lovelorn sorceress who rules her magical island with a wand of iron. Initially cautious and seemingly unsure of herself, Gottwald quickly settled into the role, rewarding an appreciative audience with some strikingly delivered arias notably the beautifully moving Cosi potessi anchio in Act II.
Fellow mezzo Daniella Pini replaced an ill Romina Basso as Medoro, one of several objects of Alcinas amorous attentions. Her tone was somewhat brittle, and she never seemed to fully inhabit the role. Still, the character of Medoro is a bit of a sop. Much more interesting is his lover, Angelica. In this, soprano Veronica Cangemi gave a performance of shimmering virtuosity matched only by the dazzle of her gown.
Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky was equally impressive as Ruggiero yet another of Alcinas love interests. Still in his thirties, Jaroussky is gradually conquering Baroque operatic repertoire through his combination of vocal strength, delicacy of timbre and musical intelligence. His rendition of Sol da te, mio dolce amore in Act I, accompanied by Alexis Kossenkos magical flute playing, was a major highlight. But if Jaroussky impressed by his subtlety, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux stole the show with her full-blooded characterisation of Orlando. From the bluster of Nel profondo in Act I, through to Orlandos recitative-led mad scene in Act II, she brought dramatic integrity and emotional truth to her performance. Not that she and the rest of the cast took themselves too seriously. The original source for Vivaldis opera, Ariostos epic poem Orlando Furioso, is full of irony and humour. Sly nods, winks, and sideways swipes at the operas inherent gender confusion made the performance a pleasure to watch as well as listen to.
Presiding over it all stood Jean-Christophe Spinosi. He clearly enjoyed himself, jumping about to Vivaldis rhythms and smiling broadly at the singers and players of the excellent Ensemble Matheus. This orchestral outfit, playing on authentic instruments, never put a note wrong. Not even a broken violin string in Act II stemmed the flow of fine music making.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk