Having being hyped as the new sensation by her record company for some time, 24-year-old Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva finally made her major solo debut at the Barbican Hall on Wednesday in a carefully chosen programme of early Handel vocal works. So is she worth all the media attention? Well, I am happy to report that she is certainly a talent to watch out for with a unique colour of voice and agile yet unfussy technique. Judging from this performance, she seems a very grounded, down-to-earth person and was refreshingly unmannered in her singing and stage presence – always eager to praise the conductor and orchestra before taking her own bows.

Julia Lezhneva © Uli Weber | Decca
Julia Lezhneva
© Uli Weber | Decca

Indeed, the orchestra deserved her praise. Conductor Giovanni Antonini and his period-instrument group Il Giardino Armonico, consisting of 13 string players, 2 oboes, bassoon, theorbo and harpsichord/organ, gave the most stylish baroque orchestral performance I’ve heard this year (five stars to the orchestra!). Too often in a singer’s recital accompanied by an orchestra or period-instrument ensemble, the non-vocal works which are included to give the singer a rest become mere programme fillers and are given a cursory performance. But this was definitely not the case here. The orchestra played four works on their own – Handel’s Agrippina overture, two concerti grossi from his op. 6 set and Geminiani’s La follia – and each was performed with such intensity (not just speed as is often the case) and detailed attention to colour and phrasing, and in particular with an amazing range of dynamics. This was just as much a showcase for Il Giardino Armonico as well as for Julia Lezhneva.

All the Handel works Lezhneva sang were from his early period in Italy, where he composed several Latin sacred works in addition to operas and oratorios. In the first half, after vocal fireworks in an aria from the opera Rodrigo, she sang two sacred works: a recitative and aria from the motet Saeviat tellus inter rigores and Salve regina HWV241. In particular, she showed sweet lyricism in the former aria O nox dulcis (O gentle night).

Lezhneva’s voice has an unusual timbre and is difficult to categorize. Although it is a lyric voice, it is not a clear and light voice like a typical British lyric, but is a more rounded voice and she has a warm-toned mezzo range as well as soaring high notes. Handel’s early works certainly suit her youthful voice at the moment but I am curious how her voice will develop in the coming years. I’m not sure if Baroque repertoire is her natural métier.

In the second half, Lezhneva’s lack of experience on the operatic stage showed in the Agrippina aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” which was elegantly sung but without quite getting inside the scheming character. She was more at ease singing the allegorical characters in the two arias from Handel’s earliest oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno: in Piacere (Pleasure)’s aria “Come nembo che fugge col vento”, she negotiated the coloratura with amazing ease (although it could have had a little more sharpness), and moreover she displayed a keen sense of ensemble especially in the fast duet passages with the solo violin (Stefano Barneschi).

The whole programme was tightly managed from the podium by the endlessly-imaginative Giovanni Antonini. Originally a recorder player, he doesn’t lead from the keyboard and he waves his hands and arms around a lot, channelling his energy and trying to get every nuance of phrasing and expression out of his players (who play standing up). There is less of the presence of the harpsichord in the continuo section but instead the theorbo plays a more prominent role and as a result gives the ensemble an airier, more Italianate sonority even when playing the concerti grossi from Handel’s London period. In the G minor concerto grosso op.6 no. 6, Antonini etched out the character of each movement in vibrant colours, from a darkly intense Larghetto, sharply-articulated second movement to a fiery fourth movement where you could hear Antonini stamp his foot in excitement!

Lezhneva and Antonini brought the evening to a satisfying close with two encores: “Lascia la spina” from Il trionfo del tempo (the original version of the more popular “Lascia ch’io pianga”) and a short virtuosic Alleluia from Porpora’s motet In caelo stelle clare fulgescant .