Magdalena Kožená’s recent release of Mozart arias, with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, no doubt won her many new admirers. Her Barbican concert was a chance to hear her sing some of the same pieces live. This time she was accompanied by Il Giardino Armonico conducted by Giovanni Antonini.
As a mezzo, there are some roles and arias that she might be advised to steer clear of. Funnily enough, it wasn’t only some of the high soprano notes that she struggled with. The very low notes in “Non più di fiori” from La Clemenza di Tito caused her to produce some quite unpleasant sounds and it was not a great start to the concert.
In “Non so più” from Le Nozze di Figaro she was much more comfortable. Her middle register is glorious and she sang this with effortless ease and beautiful tone. She went on to sing Susanna’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” from Act 3 and here, even in soprano territory, she was again secure.
Between the arias, the orchestra played some miniature symphonies by Boccherini and C P E Bach, plus the Overture to Mozart’s Mitridate, which virtually amounts to the same thing. In three short but distinct movements – Allegro, Andante Grazioso and Presto – the latter resembles one of his earliest symphonies, a brief excursion into the emergent form. It was common practice at the time to have an overture that bore little resemblance to the opera and in the form of a sinfonia.
Boccherini’s D minor symphony, known as “La casa del diavolo”, also in three movements, seems an uninspired work until the final allegro assai becomes quite demonic and engrossing. It’s based on material by Gluck, from his Don Juan opera and was also reused by Gluck himself in the Underworld scenes in Orphee et Eurydice. It’s material certainly worth recycling and Boccherini’s version, played here with great fire and precision, leaves you on a real high – a great way to go into the interval.
The final mini symphony was the 11 minute F major work by C P E Bach (W183/3), which helped break up the Mozart in the second half. This had begun with Kožená singing Fiordiligi’s “Per pietà” and here I’m afraid she really struggled. She didn’t seem capable of dealing with the wide range of this beautiful aria and certainly didn’t do justice to it.
She was back on form in two more arias from La Clemenza di Tito. Sesto, which she sang on the recent CD release of the opera with Charles Mackerras, is much more her part than Vitellia. “Deh per questo istante solo” and “Parto, parto ma tu, ben mio” were both lovely, with the gorgeous bassett clarinet in the latter almost as prominent as the voice.
Inevitably, the encore was a crowd-pleaser – Despina’s “In uomini, in soldati” – and again Kožená was on very safe ground here, singing with brilliance and lightness.
So, overall a bit of a mixed evening. I certainly wouldn’t want performers to be unadventurous in the roles they play or sing in concert but sometimes it helps to know your range and limitations. At her best, Kožená is outstanding but maybe she should be more selective about the material she sings.