Question: how do you demonstrate to a sceptical audience that baroque opera seria doesn’t have to be boring? To answer this, the organisers of Sommets Musicaux and David Greilsammer, conductor of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra came up with a programme consisting of four Handel arias interspersed with orchestral passages from French baroque opera, these chosen for their variety and dance-based character.

Lawrence Zazzo © Miguel Bueno
Lawrence Zazzo
© Miguel Bueno

Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo stepped in at forty-eight hours notice for the indisposed Andreas Scholl and had to learn the opening aria, the beginning of Admeto, within that time. You wouldn’t have known it, as Zazzo clocked in a barnstorming performance as Admetus, king of Thessaly, who is thought to be on his deathbed, is haunted by evil spirits, and admonishes the gods for their cruelty and prays for death. The recitative smacks you between the eyes - an extraordinary operatic opening, and the aria that follows is pretty strong stuff. Zazzo threw himself into the character and the drama.

Immediately following was my favourite of the evening, Va, tacito from Giulio Cesare in Egitto. It’s something of a signature tune for Zazzo and he didn’t disappoint, painting a picture of the utmost self-satisfaction as Caesar delivers a vainglorious boast of how he will defeat his enemies, couched in a metaphor of the prowess of a hunter. It’s essentially scored as a duet for counter-tenor and horn, with a splendid piece of valveless horn playing (I didn’t see the name of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra’s horn player) blending in with the joyous gusto of Zazzo’s portrait of Caesar.

There followed two arias from Rodelinda for the character of Bertarido, the exiled king. The first, Dove sei, was a typical mid-opera aria in which our hero sings of his angst-ridden circumstances, the second, Vivi tiranno a typical “victorious monarch shows magnanimity” ending aria, complete with the death-defying semiquaver runs beloved of baroque audiences. There may be several counter-tenors with sweeter, more limpid timbre than Zazzo, but you might struggle to find any to match him in dramatic effect: Vivi tiranno.

Anyone unfamiliar with early French opera might also have been surprised by the orchestral passages: a set each from various operas by Rameau, Marais and Lully, played in reverse chronological order. These displayed the rich variety and joie de vivre of French operatic music, unencumbered as it was by the deadening influence of the ecclesiastical authorities in Italy as they attempted to enforce seriousness and moral virtue into opera. The Lully may sound conventionally baroque to our modern ears, but the Marais contained everything from fugue-like passages to stomping renaissance dances, and the Rameau contained many dance motifs and a wide palette of orchestral effects. David Greilsammer conducted enthusiastically, throwing his whole body into proceedings, and the orchestra responded with plenty of verve and a good degree of orchestral clarity.

I may be a card-carrying opera lover, but I have two confessions: firstly, I do struggle with the lengthy sequence of da capo arias of a baroque opera seria, and secondly, I often find that modern opera directors are desperate to distract me from concentrating on the singing. I was delighted by the format of this concert, which enabled me to give 100% focus to four great arias and to fully appreciate the elegance of the music, the quality of word-setting and the nuances of the performance. The orchestral passages made me interested to hear more French opera of this period, something not so easy to do in England, and if I had any questions about Zazzo’s sweetness of tone, these were laid to rest by his encore, Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse. It capped a fine concert which will have delighted the baroque opera fans in the audience and made a few converts from the remainder.