Our first trip abroad in a few years, and – truly a first – apart from opera, we didn’t attend any theatre performances. In London, it was mostly musicals and tourist stuff on offer. I’d like to think this was largely due to the holiday season (in fact, the only thing I contemplated going to was a panto starring Linda Gray, who I guess counts as an honorary drag queen), but I remember on our last trip (March 2014) also thinking that the pickings were alarmingly slim.
Well, I’ll wait to worry about whether this is an ominous augery until our next trip. And there was plenty of compensation through music. Simon and I attended three events together, and I went solo to an opera at Covent Garden (my first time there!).
Reports on all of these to come, and I think I’ll do it in chronological order of attendance. So that means starting with a mixed baroque program at Wigmore Hall by the ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, led by violinist Riccardo Minasi, and featuring countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic.
On several levels, this was an unlikely concert for me. I’ve loved listening to baroque music on recordings, but rarely attend live performances, especially by small ensembles, which in my experience tend to disappear in large concert halls. This particular program included some very familiar composers (Vivaldi, Albinoni), but mostly focused on less familiar names – Brescianello, Gasparini, Porta, Giacomelli, Hasse – who recently have been championed by musicians including Cencic and Cecilia Bartoli. In theory, I’m all for it – but a little Hasse goes a long way.
Then there’s my countertenor problem – and yes: I admit it’s my problem. It’s just not a voice type I enjoy. I’ve heard several excellent ones in opera and concert – David Daniels, Andreas Scholl. But my pleasure is always limited by what I hear as a tone that never achieves full freedom and resonance. If I am going to listen to a countertenor, I’d prefer it to be in baroque music – but (especially in the heroic bravura arias), I miss the more opulent sounds of Bartoli, DiDonato, Marilyn Horne, et al – and paradoxically, these female sings bring a lot more oomph to the chest notes especially.
But I’ve been intrigued by Max Emanuel Cencic, who, though not yet 40, has already had a long career, beginning as a boy soprano of exceptional skill (he’s a soloist on several recordings by the Vienna Choir Boys). He certainly has an intriguingly ambiguous, Euro-fabulous persona, which is on full view in photographs – adventurous hairstyles and make up, and fashion-forward outfits, often heavily embroidered and accessorized.
Indeed, Cencic made quite an entrance here, dressed in black pants, shirt and foulard tie, but also wearing a brilliant, gold and red Chinese brocade dinner jacket. (Imagine Neil Patrick Harris playing Turandot, and you’ll get the idea.)
Couture aside, though, Cencic is a surprisingly un-theatrical presence. He rarely makes eye contact with the audience, focusing instead on the surrounding musicians. The overwhelming message is that he’s a serious artist.
For me, this was a concert that grew in stature throughout the evening. The first piece – a Vivaldi violin concerto – was beautifully shaped (and how wonderful to hear it in the intimate Wigmore, which has exceptionally clear, balanced acoustics), but too tame. Cencic sang several arias, all but one of them emphasizing his lovely legato – but while I admired what I was hearing, I wasn’t really blown away.
But the second half really came to life. More solo pieces from Pomo d’Oro, now sounding much livelier. And Cencic’s big moment – “Sposa, non mi conosci” from Giacomelli’s Merope – was simply magnificent, the long, arching lines balanced on a breath that seemed never to end. The very polite British audience brought Cencic and co. back for several curtain calls, and were rewarded with three or four encores – all Hasse arias, showcasing Cencic’s exceptional coloratura technique. I still prefer a female mezzo in this bravura music, but Cencic can certainly articulate it with the best of them.
So our musical events were off to a memorably good start. Still to come over the next week or so – reports on La Clemenza di Tito and Messiah at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden.