It is 20 years since Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques recorded the soundtrack for Gérard Corbiau’s film Farinelli. Back then, it was considered necessary to merge the voices of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and soprano Ewa Mallas-Godlewska to reproduce the presumed sound of the famed castrato. Nowadays, there are plenty of countertenors and mezzo-sopranos able to tackle this repertoire, and Swedish mezzo Anna Hallenberg made a good go of it at this concert at the Wigmore Hall.
It is well known that Farinelli was a legend in his own lifetime, with a voice and a singing technique that amazed audiences across Europe. What is less well known is that the singer (real name Carlo Broschi) toned down his vocal style part-way through his career (partly in response to criticism from the Emperor Charles VI in Vienna). He shed some of the overt decoration, and moderated his more showy tricks in favour of a calmer, more lyrical style. But none of the music written for him is simple, and it requires a singer with a wide range and plenty of stamina to perform this repertoire.
Hallenberg has all the advantages of an attractive voice, with a confident lower register and a flexible top. Although there was some occasional slowness when rising from low to high, she successfully adapted each phrase to suit her voice, rather than attempting to imitate an imagined ‘authentic’ style. The programme was well-selected, with offerings by Geminiano Giacomelli from Farinelli’s early successes in Venice, and the emotionally intense ‘Alto Giove’ from Polifemo by his one-time teacher and mentor Nicola Porpora. Also on offer were three arias by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi, who crafted much of his writing for him.
Most of the orchestral accompaniment was, unsurprisingly, rather perfunctory, although Les Talens made the most of the light scoring, with punchy rhythms and animated runs. There was more to get their teeth into in J. C. Bach’s Symphony in G minor and Johann-Adolf Hasse’s three-movement overture to Cleofide – a precursor to J. C. Bach’s non-operatic sinfonias. Rousset directed discreetly from the keyboard rather than overtly conducting his players. But with Les Talens, just a look or a nod from Rousset is sufficient to drive them in the right direction. An encore of Sta nell’Ircana from Handel’s Alcina was a final treat, although not one written for Farinelli. That one went to his rival, Carestini.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.