Entitled “Monteverdi, Opera and Beyond”, lyric tenor and baroque specialist Paul Agnew devised a 90 minute programme exploring the role of recitative in Monteverdi’s opera and its influence on seventeenth-century English and French operatic music. Taking the format of a lecture-recital, Agnew guided us through his selection with his huge experience and knowledge of this repertoire and illustrated his point well, although in terms of the overall musical content, perhaps he was over-ambitious in including both French and English repertoire and at times it seemed rather like a music history lesson.

Agnew began the concert with the opening recitative of Monteverdi’s Orfeo: “Rosa de ciel” accompanied by David Miller on the theorbo. He then explained to us that although Orfeo is often referred to as the first-ever opera, in fact there were at least two earlier operas on the same subject by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, and he sang the same scene from each opera (the scene when Orfeo loses Euridice for the second time). It was interesting to compare the difference of their styles and we were able to appreciate Monteverdi’s dramatic genius and his sensitivity to the text. The section was concluded with the final act of Orfeo and Agnew gave a deeply moving account of the despairing Orfeo as he descends into madness.

A brief harpsichord interlude – a spirited performance by Mahan Esfahani of “Will you walk the wood so wild” by Orlando Gibbons – led us from Monteverdi’s Italy to seventeenth century England. Here Agnew treated us to a rarity: an excerpt from Hero and Leander by Nicholas Lanier, Master of King’s Music and lutenist to Charles I. According to Agnew, this was the first piece of Italian recitative written in the English language and he and Miller gave a revelatory performance. Two Purcell songs followed: “If Music be the Food of Love” (second version) and “Not all my Torments”. It was interesting that placed in this context, the distance between Monteverdi and Purcell seemed much closer.

Yet the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the French section, which began with a virtuosic performance of Marais’s "Chaconne en rondeau" by viol player Jonathan Manson. Agnew has been a leading interpreter of French baroque opera such as Lully and Rameau, and he really shone in the three airs from Charpentier’s opera Les Stances du Cid. He displayed both Gallic elegance and Italianate sense of drama, and his beautiful control of the high tenor range was impressive. He made me wish for more – please Spitalfields Festival, can we have a Charpentier opera with Agnew next year?