Three and a quarter hours of an opera which had faded into obscurity almost as soon as it first emerged, with a frankly daft plot, did not bode well for this evening, but by the end we were all entranced, such was the sheer quality of the performance. Francesco Bartolomeo Conti’s L’Issipile really does need, not just “the four greatest singers in the world” as Caruso famously remarked about the requirements for Trovatore, but six of the greatest exponents of the baroque singing style – not to mention a first rate band under exacting yet sympathetic direction. We got all of that, so much so that the near-standing ovation came as no surprise.
Why has it not been performed more often, given that early music types seem forever to be exhuming yet more cobwebby pieces and introducing them without any trouble at all to the full glare of the standard repertoire? Because it’s practically bleedin’ impossible to sing, that’s why, yet each of this evening’s soloists emerged triumphant from what must have been a gruelling ordeal.
You can almost picture the scene – “This music’s beyond fiendish. Who can we get to sing it? Oh – but of course, John Mark Ainsley for the tenor role, he can get a beautiful sound out of absolutely anything even if it’s a couple of octaves away from his middle range. Zazzo’s great like that, too – and he’s top man for strutting, which will be great for Jason. Sopranos? Lucy, naturally – she’ll see off those top Cs with no trouble at all, and how about Rebecca Bottone for the confidante – wonderful voice, gets all the notes, warm phrasing. Diana Montague for the mother, of course – best mezzo around for this sort of thing. Ooh – and just to round it off, we’ll introduce the Wigmore audience to Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, who’s not just the go-to guy for scholarship with this work, but he’s also a fabulous counter-tenor who’s almost in the Zazzo league when it comes to strutting. Sorted.”
Of course I jest, but you get the picture. The story is inconsequential – the lads of Lemnos failing to get back to their ladies and, naturally, being punished for it by death. The arias, on the other hand, are anything but trivial, with a few that give better-known composers a challenge. In particular, the tenor’s very first aria, the wonderful Act II countertenor arioso, the mezzo’s ‘shadow’ aria towards the end of Act II, and nearly all the first soprano’s music, are not only very challenging to sing but finely evocative of mood and atmosphere. There are times – such as during the second soprano’s ‘Tu non sai’ when you could almost be hearing a Handel aria, and that’s high praise.
Unstaged though it was, every singer entered fully into the spirit of the narrative, with Ferri-Benedetti and Lawrence Zazzo in particular delighting us with their antics, and Ainsley giving a typically credible characterization as Issipile’s father – at times you could hear shades of his Idomeneo. Lucy Crowe was in wonderful form, Diana Montague’s phrasing and diction gave constant pleasure, and Rebecca Bottone sang with crystalline tone even when the music was at its most fearsome. It’s the countertenors’ show, though, and Ferri-Benedetti stole it – but given this cast, it was a close-run thing.
David Bates and his ensemble were the singers’ equals in every way; the playing was wonderfully buoyant, always supportive and sometimes breathtakingly exciting. It was a delight to see that the director knew every word of the arias. More, please – even if it’s just an evening of arias; but only with these singers, of course.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.