In the last couple of years, there has been a welcome rise of interest in the vocal music of Handel’s contemporaries such as Steffani, Porpora, Caldara and Hasse. Often these projects have come from singers exploring neglected Baroque repertoire – Cecilia Bartoli’s Steffani album and more recently Philippe Jaroussky’s album of Porpora’s arias for Farinelli come to mind. Now, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo has joined this trend and he has come up with a beautifully curated programme of operatic arias by three composers hired by the first Royal Academy of Music (London’s Italian opera company, which was active from 1719 to 1728), Handel, Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747) and Attilio Ariosti (1666–1729) explored through the repertoire of the celebrated castrato Senesino. Zazzo presented this programme at this year’s Spitalfields Music Winter Festival with rising early music group La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates.

Firstly I want to praise the programming: a delightful mix of vocal and instrumental music by the three composers with a seasonal Corelli Christmas Concerto thrown in. Bononcini and Ariosti are not exactly household names and it was clear that a lot of work and research had gone into curating this programme (Zazzo and Bates discussed this a little in the pre-concert talk with the musicologist David Vickers), but they wore their academism lightly and managed to select some genuine musical gems that could equal some of Handel’s best music.

Ariosti’s dramatic prison scene from his first Royal Academy opera Coriolano (performed in 1723, the same year as Handel’s Ottone), written for Senesino, was a case in point. In this scene, Coriolano sings of his despair and misery in an emotionally charged accompanied recitative which is followed by a more introspective, largo aria. Zazzo infused drama into the recitative text and in the aria his warm and resonant voice easily filled the church. This work had as much drama and intensity as many of Handel’s similar soliloquies, including “Io son tradito... Tanti affani” in Ottone or the opening scene from Admeto, which Zazzo had sung with equal emotional commitment earlier in the programme.

Bononcini’s music was even more of an eye-opener for me. His oeuvre was represented by arias from three of his operas, Griselda, Crispo and Muzio Scevola. At times his musical language felt older compared to Handel (after all, he was fifteen years his senior), but at other times it felt very similar, and it made me realise that some of what we now consider as “typical Handel” was in fact a common idiom of the era. In particular, the two arias from Bononcini’s Crispo were full of character and charm. “Torrente che scende” (“A Torrent that falls”) was a delightful aria with some vivid word-painting by the orchestra – every time the word “Torrente” was sung, the cellos responded with fast descending scales, played with gusto and perfect timing. The other aria, “Cosi stanco Pellegrino”, was in a more sombre mood: Crispo’s lament likening himself to a weary pilgrim (with wonderful gamba playing from Jonathan Rees). This aria would have brought out the best of Senesino’s expressive singing, and here Zazzo entertained us by incorporating three different versions of the aria with various degrees of ornamentation and orchestration.

The programme also featured a couple of popular Handel arias from the 1720s such as the hunter aria “Va tacito e nascosto” from Giulio Cesare (1724) and also Bertarido’s bravura aria “Vivi tiranno” from Rodelinda (1726). Zazzo sang Cesare’s famous aria with panache and playfulness (he has sung this role at the Met), and he brought the house down with his virtuosic ornamentation as well as the lively interaction with the excellent horn obbligato by Alec Frank-Gemmill. Zazzo’s voice is mellow, warm, seamless and particularly powerful in the middle register, and he executes the coloraturas not only with a secure technique but with dazzling musicality.

The orchestra, especially the indefatigable continuo section, played with intensity, energy and style throughout. Led by Johannes Pramsholler, who plays with poise and precision, the strings have a full-bodied sound and the oboes, bassoons and horns add colour and soloistic flair. As a former countertenor himself, Bates’ strong grasp of the vocal repertoire was evident and he accompanied Zazzo sensitively and with great timing. If his conducting in the non-vocal works wasn’t as fluent –there were some ensemble issues in the Corelli concerto – he still managed to infuse energy and character into the opera overtures.

The concert was both illuminating and thrilling and as soon as it finished I wanted to hear it all over again. I understand that a CD recording of this programme will be released in the middle of 2014, and I can’t wait!