Prom 53: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Norrington / Joyce DiDonato
The Proms chose to flog the anniversary composer horse to death tonight, with selections from all four of the birthday boys. The prospect of Roger Norrington giving Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony a rigorous clinical examination didn't thrill me, so I skipped the second half in favour of beer. Time and the iPlayer will reveal whether I made the right decision.
A selection from Purcell's Abdelazer suite kicked things off. Norrington oafed around, playing air-violin, spinning round to gurn into the omnipresent BBC cameras - demonstrating perfectly that by the time they're ready for the stage, players of the OAE's standard really don't need a conductor for this type of music. I'd be genuinely interested to know if anyone found his antics amusing. I was simply irritated. It's uplifting to see performers enjoying themselves on stage if it's genuine, but this came dangerously close to self-indulgence and, worse, trivialising the music.
There was less spinning and grinning for Handel's Water Music, still sounding remarkably fresh after all that's been done to it over the years. There's a reason why some works are popular, and enduringly so. My heart sank when I first saw the paired natural horns and natural trumpets, but they played, like the rest of the orchestra, quite exquisitely.
But what I'd really come to hear was Joyce DiDonato performing two Handel arias and a Haydn scena.
She swept on to the stage in a sea-green gown, not a trace of a limp following her recent accident. A radiant and rather nippy Ombra mai fù was followed by Ah, mio cor from Alcina. Not an easy one to sing cold - a web of deep and complex emotions is compressed into just ten lines and ten minutes. Joyce threw herself right into it, maybe a little awkwardly at first, but the music won over and she hit the target with a thrilling intensity.
Haydn's Scena di Berenice is not as tightly focussed, but its extended mad scene presents its own challenges - not least simulating demented abandon whilst maintaining immaculate vocal control over the swooping, skittering lines. Joyce's artistry translated Berenice's futile raging into a performance of assured and quite mesmerising brilliance. And to give Roger Norrington his due, the OAE whipped up a storm behind her as well.
Joyce's next London appearance (and her last for a while) is a concert performance of Berlioz's La damnation de Faust with the LSO next month - not to be missed.
Joyce DiDonato discusses her accident:
Joyce DiDonato sings Ah, mio cor: