Well known Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi joined Il pomo d’oro for a Handel vocal recital as part of the Karlsruhe 40th annual Handel Festival, in the Chistuskirche. The title of the event, which can be translated as A Woman’s Love and Life, is usually associated with Schumann’s song cycle of that name, which depicts a rather soppy scenario of marriage and birth. It is somewhat at odds with the essay in the program entitled “Händels starke Frauen”, or Handel’s Strong Women. The essay in question is by famous crime novelist Donna Leon, who is a great lover of Handel. She also provided a live commentary on the night, arguing that Handel’s heroines were generally stronger, feistier and more vengeful than the heroines of the standard opera repertoire (Mimì, Violetta, Isolde, Lucia). The concert thus contained a number of arias sung by some of these tough broads: Rodelinda, Alcina, Laodice (from Siroe), Melissa (from Amadigi di Gaula) and Cleopatra. The venue, a Protestant church built at the turn of the 19-20th centuries, has rather odd acoustics, with (from where I sat, about half-way back in the nave) sounds occasionally seeming to come from above.

Patrizia Ciofi © Jorge Rodriguez Norton
Patrizia Ciofi
© Jorge Rodriguez Norton

The relatively new Baroque ensemble, Il pomo d’oro, has been in existence for about five years, undergoing a leadership change during that time; they are now directed by youthful keyboard player Maxim Emelyanychev. Over this short period, they have garnered much acclaim for various concerts and recordings of Baroque opera and recitals featuring some of the top Baroque singers of the day. They did not disappoint at this concert, playing with sumptuous sound for such a small group. As well as accompanying the soprano, they played Handel’s Sonata in G major (HWV 399), which was slightly annoyingly done in two bits around a couple of arias. In this, they demonstrated their capacity for subtle textures and delicacy, with some impressive violin virtuosity, and a nice little grace note from the harpsichord at the end.

Ciofi is a fine singer, and well regarded in operatic circles, particularly in Mozart, bel canto and some Verdi roles, but she probably shouldn’t be singing the Handel repertoire, at least as represented here. Her decorations were far from the usual Baroque style, and her coloratura was not well articulated. She nevertheless produced an appropriately strong crowd-pleasing performance in a robust bright soprano, with lots of dramatic and emotional impact. Her voice has a not unpleasant graininess in the middle, but the top notes are generally very clear, albeit with the occasional squalliness. 

“Morrai si” from Rodelinda was delivered with right amount of dramatic ferocity, while “Ombra pallide” and “Ah mio cor” from Alcina displayed an appropriate emotional commitment.  Melissa’s aria “Vanne lungi dal mio petto” with its runs of high notes was greeted with acclaim, and Cleopatra’s “Se pieta” with its contrasting A and B sections was also well received, and a pacy “Da tempeste”. The encore was Morgana’s aria “Tornami a vagheggiar”, which went down well but also displayed a lack of real coloratura. The audience awarded the event a standing ovation; in the words of an older compatriot, I sat.