He came. He saw. He conquered. Not only George Frideric Handel, who made London his home and scored huge operatic hits here, including Giulio Cesare, but Iestyn Davies, who made a winning return to the Kings Place stage for an enthralling exploration of Handel’s London altos, male and female. Deftly programmed to take in opera, oratorio, cantata and church anthem, the programme also served the venue’s ‘London Unwrapped’ theme, taking us on a spin around the King's and Queen’s Theatres in Haymarket, and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Iestyn Davies
© Monika S Jakubowska | Kings Place

Performing before an audience again is obviously still something of a novelty. During the opening concerto from Ottone, Davies stared out, taking in the masked faces as if noting acquaintances – or perhaps even counting us, spread out in our socially-distanced rows. The smile and the triumphant little fist pump at the sound of applause after his first aria spoke volumes. 

Davies’ countertenor was in fine fettle, from the agile coloratura in Cesare’s swaggering “Prest omai l’Egizia terra” to the sensitive dynamic shading of notes in Bertarido’s “Dove sei, amato bene?” from Rodelinda. Both were written for the famed castrato Senesino, begetter of 17 major Handelian roles between 1721 and 1734. Senesino was something of an arrogant star, eventually earning Handel’s displeasure, but not before he’d composed some terrific music for him. Smitten with Cleopatra, Cesare’s aria “Se in fiorito ameno prato” tickled the ear, Davies sparring with Nadja Zwiener’s solo violin in avian imitation, chirruping and trilling in duet.

Nadja Zwiener, Peter Whelan, Iestyn Davies and The English Concert
© Monika S Jakubowska | Kings Place

The other named London alto remembered on the bill was Francesca Vanini-Boschi, who sang for Handel in Italy and in London, creating the role of Goffredo in Rinaldo in 1711. “Sorge nel petto” was beautifully poised, aided by tender violin and cello solos, while the two arias in the cantata Splenda l’alba in oriente were nimbly dispatched.

Peter Whelan, Iestyn Davies and Sergio Bucheli
© Monika S Jakubowska | Kings Place

There was a pleasing fluidity to the 70-minute, interval-less programme, segueing from sinfonias and ballet numbers to arias and back again, brilliantly held together by Peter Whelan leading The English Concert from the harpsichord. There was great uniformity of attack from the violins, particularly in the Trio Sonata in G major, expressive theorbo playing from Sergio Bucheli and splashes of colour from a pair of oboes (sometimes doubling on recorder). Near the stage (no designated seats in Kings Place, you sit strictly where you’re told, filling up from the front), it was wonderful to watch the facial expressions and communications between Whelan and Zwiener and to experience the thrill of live music-making at such close quarters. Davies occasionally took on the demeanour of a naughty schoolboy, stealing the occasional sneaky peek at Whelan’s score or winking across to the leader. But the aria “I will magnify Thee”, from one of Handel’s Chapel Royal anthems, was a model of purity and sincerity, as was his moving encore, “Hide me from day's garish eye”, setting John Milton in the pastoral ode L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

London excursion complete, Davies had an hour for a quick breather before undertaking the same programme all over again for the next audience. Get that man a tourist guide blue badge.