King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall

In the event, while there were many opportunities to enjoy Vivaldi’s
melodic gifts and colourful scoring, and players and singers were undoubtedly
committed, the various parts of what is essentially a pasticcio
didn’t quite add up to a persuasive whole.

In fact, ‘serenata’ derives from the Italian
‘sereno’: calm and clear. The form emerged in the mid-1660s as a
sort of hybrid nestled somewhere between cantata, oratorio and opera, and
serenatas often composed to mark a festive or celebratory occasion. Usually
comprising two acts, they were presented ‘in concert’ by two or
more soloists, who did not wear costumes and were not required to act but
simply took turns to sing their arias, which employed the general musical style
of contemporary opera. Indeed, there was often no ‘action’ to speak
of; rather, the inevitably laudatory texts commonly presented discursive debate
between allegorical figures. (I am indebted to Michael Talbot, from whose
programme article and longer essay, ‘The Serenata in Eighteenth-Century
Venice’ (Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No.18,
1982) I have gleaned historical information.)

Vivaldi’s La Senna festeggiante fits this bill. Domenico
Lalli’s libretto sends L’Età dell’Oro (The Golden Age)
and La Virtù (Virtue) on a quest beside the River Seine (La Senna). In a
succession of fairly succinct arias, duets and trios they sing each
other’s praises in verse of somewhat tedious verbosity, then espy the
splendours of the Palace of Versailles and eulogize the French King, rejoicing
in the glories that await him.

As might be expected of the form, there is no dramatic content, which might
have played to Vivaldi’s advantage as he is able to exercise his melodic
flair without concern for ‘plot’ and dramatic form, and the score
certainly has an air of freedom and resourcefulness. Historically, the static
nature of the performance probably aided the singers too — especially if
expediency meant there was little time for compilation and rehearsal —
for they were not required to learn their roles from memory. On this occasion,
though, advantage became drawback, and of the three soloists — soprano
Julia Doyle (L’Età dell’Oro), contralto Hilary Summers (La Virtù) and
bass David Wilson-Johnson (La Senna) — only Summers was confidently
off-score and as such communicated much more directly and powerfully,
establishing a more three-dimensional ‘character’. (Summers sang
the role for conductor Robert King’s Hyperion recording of the work in
2002: Hyperion

But, there was plenty to admire, not least the nods towards the Gallic style
which pepper the Italianate elements of the score. Although only three of
Vivaldi’s known eight serenatas survive, several are thought to have been
connected with events at the French court of Louis XV, and
commissioned by the recently appointed French Ambassador to Venice,
Vincent Languet, Count of Gergy. Thus, La gloria Imeneo
(1725) was composed to celebrate Louis’s wedding to the Polish Princess
Maria Leszczynska, while the lost serenata L’unione
della pace e di marte
honoured the birth of royal twins in 1727.

La Senna festeggiante deals with Louis’s accession to the
throne in 1724 and was probably intended to be delivered as a homage on the
feast of St. Louis — though Talbot laments the absence of a central
bifolio from the long final recitative in which conventionally the
circumstances of performance are elucidated, noting that King has supplied
extra music to text by Carlo Vitali to fill the gap.

Vivaldi’s enthusiastic experimentation with the French style is
evident in the dance-like pulse which enlivens many of the arias and in the
extensive use of accompagnato recitative. The Gallic idiom was
immediately apparent in the animated dotted rhythms of the first part of the
opening Sinfonia (and the more aggressive counterpart in the Part 2 overture).
The five string players of the King’s Consort played with robustness but
despite their obvious hard work, the violin tone was a little thin. The central
movement of the Sinfonia lacked lyrical warmth as a result, though the final
Allegro was bright and buoyant. Elsewhere the ‘off-the-string’
bowing was a little dry. Perhaps aware of the challenge for the strings, King
extended the use of Vivaldi’s prescribed two recorders and two oboes to
double or replace the strings elsewhere in the score, so it was fortunate that
the intonation discrepancies in the Sinfonia were quickly settled.

Julia Doyle was a pure-toned, innocent Golden Age, singing with lightness
and fleetness and exercising consistent vocal control and an impressive
precision in the higher registers. Typical was the delicate flourish which
embodies the lines ‘If sometimes here I go in search of peace, the
nightingale for flies around singing, pauses in flight and answers:
peace’ in Doyle’s opening aria (‘Se qui pace talor vo
cercando’), which would happily have substituted for the bird-song
mimicry which Vivaldi incorporates joyfully into his concertos. Similarly,
‘Al mio seno il pargoletto’ (which Vivaldi borrowed from his 1716
opera Arsilda, regina di Ponto) was characterised by charmingly fluid,
clear lines and arcs: ‘At my breast I will feed the little Baby on milk
alone, sucked there with unsullied lips.’ The soprano used the barest
sprinkle of vibrato which graced the role with freshness and refinement, but at
times I longed for a little more depth and colour, particularly as the arias
themselves lacked any notable variety of vocal style. The Part 2 aria
‘Giace languente’ (Conquered Fate) found Doyle at her best:
following a minor-key recitative to which the theorbo’s expressive spread
chords (Eligio Quinterio) had lent poignancy, this was singing of agility and
stronger expressive presence, as the soprano engaged thoughtfully with the
energetic woodwind interspersions.

Virtù was a figure of dignity and regality as crafted by Hilary
Summers. Her contralto is silky and full but she restrained its more voluptuous
layers and used its depth to convey sincerity and profundity. Her tuning was
impeccable and the melodic line focused and fluent, most particularly in the
Part 2 aria ‘Stelle, con vostra pace’ (modelled on an aria from
Vivaldi’s Arsilda), in which she sustained a flowing melody
against an assertive unison line for violins. ‘Così sol
nell’aurora’, which began with the violins’ gentle pastoral
prelude, showed off the contralto’s nimbleness of voice and closed with
an exciting instrumental diminuendo to depict the ‘sun, with his shining
rays appear among the stars, full of splendours’. Summers’ arias
were also notable for the clarity of the diction, which was aided by her
obvious familiarity with the role.

The ladies’ voices blended appealingly in their duets, but it was
David Wilson-Johnson who had the lion’s share of the virtuosity to
negotiate. The baritone was secure in the more challenging numbers such as
‘L’alta lor gloria immortale’, with its racing vocal
line, and the pitching in La Senna’s first aria, ‘Qui nel
profondo’ was very focused as Wilson-Johnson negotiated the nimble lines
in unison with the accompaniment. I’d have liked a bit more heroism in
‘L’alta’, though, and while ‘Pietà,
dolcezza’ which opens Part 2 was expressively phrased — and the
preceding recitative featured a wonderfully quite plummet at the close
— the gentleness of Wilson-Johnson’s baritone was rather subsumed
by the forceful instrumental bass lines. The final chorus is in four parts, and
tenor Tom Robson made a brief appearance to form the quartet.

The arias succeeded one another apace and King kept things swinging along,
his swift, sharp hand gestures supplemented by twists of the shoulder, nudges
of the elbow and nimble sways. But, this patchwork score — there are
copious musical borrowings from Vivaldi’s earlier works and textual
borrowings from his operas Apollo in Tempe, Calisto in orsa
among others — required more consistently penetrating vocal performances
and, perhaps, more lavish orchestral accompaniment, to triumph over the
short-comings which even King’s evident, unflagging enthusiasm could not
quite overcome.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

The King’s Consort: Robert King — conductor, Julia Doyle —
soprano (as L’Età dell’Oro), Hilary Summers — contralto
(as La Virtù), David Wilson-Johnson — baritone (as La Senna), Tom
Robson — tenor (as Chorus).

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 3rd May 2016

image_description=The King’s Consort [Photo by Taco van der Werf]
product_title=King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: The King’s Consort [Photo by Taco van der Werf]