Picture a warm May evening, walking the narrow, silent, cool streets of the ancient capital of Malta, then sitting amongst a magnificent collection of 17th- and 18th-century art with a promise of secrets!

Francis Micallef, PHOTOCITY Valletta
Francis Micallef, PHOTOCITY Valletta

This was the setting for a concert – no, in fact, a spectacular – held on Friday 10 May at the Cathedral Museum, Mdina. A programme of forgotten 18th-century arias performed by Les Bougies Baroques, a vocal and instrumental ensemble comprising young professional musicians who perform on period instruments and, using authentic performance practices, specialize in the vocal and instrumental repertoire from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The concert commenced with the overture to L’Agrippina (1708) by Nicola Porpora, the first modern performance. This was followed almost immediately by the introduction and the dramatic arrival, through the audience, of Epitide in the guise of the countertenor Cenk Karaferya, dressed immaculately in a period costume – one of the many surprises that we were treated to throughout the evening – singing “Sposa, non mi conosci” from La Merope in the setting by Geminiano Giacomelli. Following this, the aria “Non fu mai più vista in soglio” from La Senna Festeggiante by Vivaldi was sung by the soprano Jenavieve Moore, resplendent in costume with a coiffured wig supporting two enormous black feathers.

For each of the arias there was a different costume for the performers, thanks to the wardrobe department of the Manoel Theatre.

Next, a regal entry by Cleopatra, alias the Maltese soprano Claudia Tabone, preceded a dramatic performance of “Piangerò” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

A gem from the Maltese composer Girolamo Abos was performed by Tabone and the mezzo-soprano Clare Ghigo; “Padre addio” from Pelopide. This was only the second modern performance of the work, edited from a manuscript in the Mdina archives by the Maltese musicologist Dr Frederick Aqualina, the first performance having been in January during the Valletta International Baroque Festival.

The tone of the concert slowed for the exquisite lament “Lascia ch’io pianga”, from Handel’s Rinaldo, beautifully performed by Moore. An instrumental interlude followed which showcased the instrumental ensemble in a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto per archi “Alla Rustica”. Next was a beautiful aria: “Dopo notte” from Ariodante by Handel, superbly sung by Ghigo with some intricate coloratura passages superbly executed.

In yet another first performance in 300 years, the trio “A’un’alma infelice” by Riccardo Broschi (elder brother of Carlo Broschi, a.k.a. the internationally acclaimed castrato Farinelli) was brilliantly performed by Tabone, Ghigo and Karaferya, bringing the first half to a dramatic end. Almost on cue, muted by the applause of the audience, a string of the double bass decided that, not only had it performed the last note of the first half, it had performed its own ultimate note, when with a muted, staccato, ping, it snapped.

The interval afforded the audience an opportunity to view the magnificent exhibits of the Metropolitan Cathedral Museum, by kind permission of the Metropolitan Chapter.

The double bass fully restored to health, the second half commenced with Purcell’s suite Abdelazer by Purcell, concluding with the song “Lucinda is Bewitching Fair”, performed by Moore. The aria “Alto Giove” from Polifemo, in the setting by Porpora, was performed by Ghigo. “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Handel’s Alcina by Handel, sung by Moore, followed next.

One of the most popular libretti of the 18th century was Metastasio’s Artasese, attracting many composers of the time to set it to music. One of the most important of these was Leonardo Vinci, and the concert included two arias from Vinci’s setting. “Tu vuoi ch’io viva o caro” is a powerful duet between Artasese and Mandane, performed here by Karaferya and Ghigo. It was a duet rife with conflicting emotions, clearly portrayed by the dramatic performance of the two protagonists.

The other aria was “Fra cento affini” performed by Cenk Karaferya. The aria included some bravura writing exploiting the different registers and dynamics of the soloist.

Between these two arias there was a chance to hear the instrumental ensemble in Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op. 6 no. 5. The soloists in this work were violinist Annika Gray (the leader of the ensemble), violinist Katherine Evans, and cellist Lucile Perrin. The continuo was directed from the harpsichord by the director of Les Bougies Baroques, Ian Peter Bugeja.

Another regal entry of Cleopatra (Tabone) heralded the aria “Da Tempeste il legno infranto” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. The concert reached its climax with Handel’s trio “Non è amor, ne gelosia”, from Alcina, sung by Karaferya, Moore and Ghigo: an excellent portrayal of confrontation and conflicting emotions which were perfectly projected by the three performers.

The progamme was a long one, offering over two hours of the most enjoyable music in an authentic setting. Despite the temperature, and one can only imagine the heat under the costumes and wigs of the performers, none of the performances were affected in any way. One of the singers, afterwards, confessed that she had felt like fainting at one point but focused on the singing, a truly professional approach.

The concert, generously sponsored by the Lions Club of Sliema, was an opportunity to support and appreciate young, talented musicians, making a head start to their careers.