The London Handel Festival’s concert ‘Handel vs Porpora’ presented instrumental items and a selection of arias from operas by the two rival London-based 18th-century composers George Frideric Handel and Nicola Porpora. Readers will be relieved to know that there was no loser in this competition. The evening, thanks to the first-rate performances by Le Concert de l’Hostel Dieu and Giuseppina Bridelli under the direction of Franck-Emmanuel Comte, was full of the sensitivity, snap and sparkle that one wants from Baroque opera.
The Italian mezzo Giuseppina Bridelli is a regular on the Italian-Baroque scene, and, even when delivering operatic material in a concert performance, she portrays it with dramatic gesture and total involvement. There’s a rich creaminess to her voice that continues throughout her range, but it has sufficient edge to command attention in the pyrotechnic passages of the more bravura arias such as Porpora’s A questa man verrà or Handel’s Qui ti sfido. She does, however, have a tendency to hold back on her plosive consonants, such that the venom-laden passages lose some of the spitting force that comes across so well in Italian, and become a bit of a procession of vowels. There were also slight problems with the balance between voice and instruments, and for busy arias low in the tessitura – such as the Handel/Porpora Quando piomba – we could have done with chest-voice volume notched up a couple of points. But these are mere quibbles at the edge of an otherwise astonishing tour de force that provided so many moments of delight. The variations of vocal texture against the chirrups of the orchestra for Handel’s Inumano fratel/Stille amare (varying types of attack on the word ‘gia’, and a final breathiness for the climactic ‘gia vi sento …’) were magnificently controlled, and the lengthy crescendi from nothing (her voice conjured from the orchestral texture) in Porpora’s Alto Giove were magical.
The instrumental ensemble too was outstanding, and, under Comte’s inspired direction and total understanding of the dramatic requirements of the form, with strings a single bassoon, theorbo, guitar and harpsichord painted a musical landscape full of different colours and textures. Both dynamic and timbre were considered in every musical utterance, such that we were treated to busy, running passages led by a ferociously percussive guitar in Handel’s Brilla nell’alma, stuttering strings for Inumano fratel, elegantly restrained swells of instrumental volume between the sung passages in Porpora’s Il gioir qualor s’aspetta, and a rhythmic legato orchestral wash in Alto Giove.
The instrumental items were a delight to listen to: the grandiloquent French-overture beginning to Handel’s overture to Semele was a perfect choice as a concert-opener, and Handel’s ballet from Ariodante was given all the variety of texture needed to point up the warring dreams and nightmares. It has to be said, though, that Porpora’s Op. 2 Sinfonia da Camera, notwithstanding its nuanced performance and jolly final ‘Giga’, tended a little towards ‘boilerplate Baroque’, and there seemed to be a slight interchange of movements in the piece, as the first was much slower than Allegro and the second a little too brisk to be Affettuoso. Special mention must go to Florian Gazagne, whose sensitive account of the bassoon counter-melody in Handel’s Scherza infida turned the piece into an exquisite duet with Bridelli, and whose surprise recorder playing accentuated the bucolic quality of the ‘Tamburino’ from Handel’s Alcina.
Another special mention must go to St George’s; as it was Handel’s parish church, it’s an obvious choice for a venue for a London Handel Festival concert, but its acoustic made it the perfect choice for this material.