The programme read as the most mouthwatering baroque vehicle for a mezzo, and a condensation of Sarah Connolly’s 2013 engagements at ENO and Glyndebourne. She is surely at the top of her game and when she walked on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall almost lost in a trance, we were all pinned back to our seats by the magisterial presence and her elaborate weaving of the complex persona of Medea. Her Quel prix de mon amour was concentrated and sharp with a great sense of dramatic finality. The change of mood half way was definite and chilling setting the stage for a terrifying Noires filles du Styx which was again incredibly vivid and communicated with the utter simplicity only a great artist can deliver. Connolly has a very rare quality, of being a vivid stage actress but not one to give in to pedestrian sentimentality. Instead opting for a more concentrated, sophisticated approach. In this repertoire that pulling back from paroxysms and overacting has to be treasured. It was unfortunate that the orchestral playing under Jonathan Cohen was not as tightly controlled and shaped as one would like to hear but it was not too distracting.
The short dances by Lalande were utterly charming and totally worth listening to this splendid late 17th century lift muzak. Can obviously picture dignitaries tucking into their roast dinner while this playful jollity envelops the ether.
The arrival of the excerpts from Purcell’s Dioclesian and Dido & Aeneas found the orchestra in a much more vivid mood and it also paved the way for the arrival of our tenor, Fernando Guimarães (since the programme was changed and he did not sing the advertised duet from Médée) his voice showed an exceptional clarity in its upper register an attribute much cherished in Baroque music making. I found his stage presence lacking in comparison but his delivery of the aria from Dioclesian was warm and convincing. His timbre and its exceptional brightness may not be to everyone’s taste but surely it’s a very distinctive sound that demands attention.
Connolly’s delivery of Dido’s lament was as haunting as anyone can expect, with the tortured last Remember me, remember me ringing hushed to the very back of the auditorium. Again a triumph of restraint and taste. It was musical and deeply emotional. The reaction of the audience was extraordinary and echoed in our ears for a few good minutes into the interval.
The second half was an all Rameau affair. The orchestra played with great propulsion and gusto the stirring, almost galloping overture of Hippolyte et Aricie. Being at the second row of the stalls we could observe the extraordinary add ons to the valveless brass in order to make the grandiose grande marche sounds that Rameau had in mind for both instrumental pieces. One of the perennially strange aspects of watching a period instrument orchestra play is seeing the amount of “plumbing” taking place in order to alter the sound of the horns.
Her Phèdre was a creature full of life and tragic power. Clearly her recent stage experience at the Paris Opera and their lavish production gave her even more confidence to fully inhabit the character. She hints at fragility in the first two arias under the surface of steel. Cruelle mère des amours has to be one of the most beautiful and emotionally complex arias in the whole of baroque opera. Her heart wrenching sincerity and vibrating pathos was stunning.
And still she held back her most vibrant interaction of the evening with how she at first recoils at the sight of Hippolyte to then turn and hiss her words at him full of venom and disdain. That was such a fantastic acted through performance, far and beyond what one could expect from a concert. The last words she uttered (immoler ma rivale!) were scrunched up and tossed across the concert platform at such close proximity to the tenor it seemed akin to physical abuse. Guimarães acquitted himself admirably well opposite this fiery Phèdre and contributed his own bitter-sweet monologue delivered with great delicacy and poise.
The suite from Les Paladins was played with exuberance and humour, concluding with a virtuoso coloratura display by Guimarães in Lance, Lance amour he displayed incredible breath control and a flawless upper register, bringing a sense of excitement that made this evening feel like it was closing with a firework display.
It was an extraordinary evening celebrating one of the greatest singers to grace operatic stages across the globe. And it was deeply joyous to see the Hall sold out and making some noise for such a wonderful artist. I can barely wait for her Medea at ENO in early 2013…my favourite seats are already booked.