Simply set with a white screen and an arrangement of flowers on a tall wooden stand, the sunlit central space of the Noorderkerk provided a setting for a delightful concert of 18th-century Italian cantatas and duets by the Luscinia Quartet. The two young sopranos, Stefanie True and Anna Kellnhofer, gave a performance that seemed in keeping with the sunny spring weather outside: fresh, lively and joyous.
I was delighted that in addition to performing in baroque costume, the singers performed with the gesture and stage techniques of the period, using stylised movements and gestures of the hands to convey the meaning of the text. Directed by expert in Baroque dance and stage movement Sigrid T'Hooft, both singers performed the gestures with grace and a nice appreciation of their affective purpose.
For the first scene, Giovanni Bononcini's Chi di gloria, an extended dramatic prologue of arias and duets, True entered in a simple white dress and carrying a wreath to signify “Virtue”, and Kellnhofer, who took the male roles throughout the concert, entered as “Cupid”, with pale yellow breeches and waistcoat, carrying a bow. The instrumentalists Anthony Romaniuk, harpsichord, and Anton Baba, Baroque cello, both wore modern concert dress, which I thought was definitely a good choice, making sure audience attention was clearly directed towards the singers.
The concert focussed on the music of two composers connected with the Accademia degli Arcadi (Academy of Arcadia) in Rome: Bononcini and Handel. The Arcadians were a literary association which sought to influence the direction of Italian poetry in line with classical Greek and Roman models, valuing simplicity, grace of form and mythical and pastoral themes. The Luscinia Quartet's programme paid graceful homage to this ideal, with a carefully chosen selection of works relating to classical allegory and pastoral romances of nymphs and shepherds.
The instrumentalists provided an excellent foil for the singers, with well-balanced, sprightly playing. Bononcini's extended scene Nemica d'amore allowed them both to shine, with rippling, soft-textured playing from Romaniuk, and a lovely delicate touch on the cello from Anton Baba. The duet Nò, di voi non vo' fidarmi, by Handel, provided the funniest moments in the concert, when True, having previously added a green overdress to her white gown and donning a flowered straw sunhat, entered as a shepherdess, carrying a large fluffy toy lamb under her arm. Kellnhofer followed carrying a single flower, and there followed a duet with a comically petulant lovers' tiff, complete with stylised shaking fists, and some really gorgeous, melting vocalism on the interweaving exchange of “inganni” (deceptions).
Though both singers are sopranos, with beautifully compatible voices, the assignation of the female roles to True and the male to Kellnhofer was well-chosen for their individual vocal qualities. Kellnhofer's voice is very pure and graceful, with a lovely warm colour, well-suited to the role of the languishing romantic swain. While a little more high resonance in the sound would have ensured more perfect intonation at a couple of moments, her account of Bononcini's solo cantata Filli, del tuo partire was pensive and really charming, with her supple voice relishing Handel's gracious melodic lines. True's beautifully balanced voice has a silvery brightness and excellent, sparkling high notes. The picture of fluttering feminine agitation with her graceful movements and gestures, she gave a very touching performance of Handel's cantata Allor ch'io dissi addio, especially with some sweetly pathetic moments in the last aria, “Il dolce foco mio”.
In true adherence to the conventions of 18th-century stage performance, the concert ended with a moral: Handel's duet Ahi, nelle sorti umane expounds the fate of humans, who must reconcile themselves the the eternal truth that happiness and pain go together, and one cannot be had without the other. For this last duet both performed entered the stage swathed like conspirators, in black cloaks, stepping out of their pastoral characters, and returning implicitly to the status of allegory as the wise commentators on foolish humans. Archaic performance conventions were evoked throughout this concert with an affectionate lightness of touch that made them seem neither archaic nor affected, but wholly apt and charming.
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