The incomparable and seemingly tireless Ann Hallenberg appeared in the Halle Handel Festival with a feast of music effectively unheard for nearly 300 years. Entitled “Carnevale 1729”, it consisted of arias from the Venice carnival of that year; research by Hallenberg, in collaboration with her musicologist husband Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg, has turned up such works by Leo, Giacomelli, Porpora, Orlandini and Vinci. She was accompanied by Il pomo d’oro, a Baroque group which has rapidly established itself as one of the best period instrument ensembles of our day, conducted from the harpsichord by Maxim Emelyanychev.

Ann Hallenberg and Maxim Emelyanychev © Thomas Ziegler
Ann Hallenberg and Maxim Emelyanychev
© Thomas Ziegler

The first aria in the concert, a medium paced “Soffre talor del vento” from Leo’s opera Catone in Utica with plentiful coloratura displayed nearly all Hallenberg’s virtues: absolute beauty of tone, evenness of production across the range of her voice (mezzo-soprano, extending upwards in recent years), considerable volume, accuracy and what sounds like effortless flexibility. In some ways more rewarding were the less bravura, more introspective numbers, starting with “Mi par sentir la bella” (Giacomelli, Gianguir), with lots of slow melismas and sensitive pizzicato accompaniment. Porpora’s “Il pastor, se torna aprile” from Semiramide riconosciuta is (presumably) a simile aria about a shepherd returning to his fold in the spring, sung with gleaming high notes and gentle perfect trills. Less gentle but no less accurate trills, up and down the scale, were emitted in Orlandini’s bravura “Non sempre invendicata” from Adelaide, demonstrating Hallenberg’s range of colours and shading, dramatic relish and amazing deep notes in the da capo. One should also mention her obvious rapport with the orchestra, and the extension of that rapport to the audience; Hallenberg offers one of the warmest embraces of an audience by a recitalist imaginable, without a trace of condescension.

Another simile aria of the familiar “ship-in-trouble” type by Vinci (from an anonymous pasticcio), “Nave altera ch’in mezzo all’onde”, comprised the next vocal offering, in which (as everywhere really) we could take note of Hallenberg’s immaculate diction and attention to text. A longer stretch of singing came with the recitative and aria selection “O del mio caro sposo … Quanto bello agl’occhi miei” (Orlandini’s Adelaide), in which we were plunged into Hallenberg’s emotional investment in the recit, addressing an unfaithful loved one, and the aria calling for welcome death. Here long breathed lines were tastefully embellished, with creamy low notes and shining high ones, immaculate breath control and sheer gorgeous tone. “Bel piacer” (Porpora, Semiramide rconosciuta) showed the same mastery of long challenging intricate lines.

The last item on the printed programme was Handel’s “Dopo orrore”, more familiar but rendered anew. This was followed by an encore, the totally demented “In braccio mille furie” (Porpora, Semiramide reconosciuta), which she has performed before, and which leaves the audience (if not her) breathless. A second encore consisted of “Viene o figlio” (Handel, Ottone), an exercise in pure beauty.

Two Handel instrumental works interspersed with the arias offered alternative pleasures while digesting the vocal splendours around them.  The Trio Sonata in G major Op.5 no. 4 in particular displayed full-bodied lively sound in an essentially light hearted sunny work.  Emelyanchev’s participation here, as elsewhere, was enthusiastic and impassioned. One should also single out oboist Roberto de Franceschi particularly for his contribution to “Mi par sentir la bella”.

It might be noted that one of the possible drawbacks for a concert such as this is that not all audiences, or all of a given audience, are totally comfortable with unfamiliar works. For those willing to entertain something different however, and embark on a voyage of discovery, it was an occasion of unmitigated delight in listening to freshly unearthed gems by a singer at the very top of her prodigious game.