The performance of The English Concert, directed by Harry Bicket, could not have been faulted, but one star shone brighter than any other in this concert of ‘operatic’ music by Purcell and Handel. This was soloist Alice Coote whose mezzo-soprano voice could not have been better suited to capturing the madness of Dejanira in Hercules or the variety of emotions required for the excerpts chosen from Ariodante.
In this consistently exceptional performance, Coote placed immense trust in her voice to convey a diverse range of sounds across the evening, and each was executed to perfection. In the recitatives and arias from Hercules she used her dark, resonant and full voice as a baseline, before demonstrating incredible flexibility as her transition from the lower to upper register saw each soaring phrase seem to cap the last for beauty. She also took risks, as in one accompanied recitative her emphasis on one syllable in the phrase ‘Oh gods, how racking are the pains of absence’ saw a broadness in her mouth (as opposed to throat) that in the wrong pair of hands could have sounded amiss, but here only added colossal emphasis to the word ‘absence’.
Coote also proved to be an inspiring actor as she gazed upwards when singing of sun, light and skies, and dramatically unfurled her deep blue dress as she stretched out her arms. In capturing Dejanira’s madness she could demonstrate strength in her lamentable tones, but also round off verses with such lightness that they implied total fragility. In the final excerpt performed, ‘Where shall I fly?’, there was a clear sob following the utterance ‘Oh fatal error of misguided love!’. She also left immensely generous, and dramatically pointed, gaps between each syllable in the phrase ‘By me Alcides dies!’ while the final line ‘From the pursuing furies of the mind’ could hardly have been more impassioned.
In the excerpts from Ariodante, Coote revelled in conveying a far wider range of emotions. Her performance of ‘Qui d’amor’ was tender and heartfelt, and although her overall sound was full of body, certain lines were allowed to ‘evaporate’ into the air. The aria ‘Scherza infida’ demonstrated grief as intense as any just heard in Hercules and yet felt different in sense and tone because the protagonist was not on the verge of madness in the same way. This gave way to the far more joyful ‘Dopo notte’, but in both arias what impressed most was the extent to which each repetition of line or verse could be imbued with such a different sound and hence meaning.
Alongside expertly performing overtures, sinfonias and ballets from Hercules and Ariodante in between the arias, The English Concert shone in its own right. Although delivering a tender, precise and balanced sound throughout, the group did not feel inhibited by taking too gentle an approach to the scores, fully recognising that they are theatrical and intended to be packed with drama. This, if anything, enabled the music to be imbued with even more nuances, most notably in Purcell’s complex Dance of the Furies from Dioclesan and the peerless Chaconne which closes The Fairy Queen.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org