The Royal Albert Hall is not the venue one typically expects for a recital of Baroque soprano arias. Nevertheless, its cavernous grandeur proved a rather unexpected fit for Anna Prohaska’s recital themed around two of the great classical queens, Dido and Cleopatra. Indeed, the political savvy, tumultuous affairs and tragic ends of the two women provided a wealth of inspiration for Baroque composers ranging from Handel and Purcell to Sartorio and Graupner.

Anna Prohaska, Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Anna Prohaska, Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Anna Prohaska must surely be one of the most compelling artists performing today, equally at home in Handel and Mozart as in Reimann and Rihm. Though her crystalline lyric coloratura soprano has never been large, the voice has acquired a new richness and depth – most notable was a surprisingly well-projected lower register. More importantly, Prohaska remains a masterful interpreter of text whether in English as Purcell’s Dido or Italian as Handel’s Cleopatra, not to mention Graupner’s Dido, who switches from German to Italian in the middle of the recitative. This same sense of narrative drama was reflected in the programme itself, with arias and instrumental works flowing into one another and effectively contrasting the musical and thematic elements of the programme. While Il giardino armonico under conductor (and sometimes recorder and flute soloist!) Giovanni Antonini offered their customary stylish technique and luminous sound, they seemed oddly subdued, offering true visceral excitement only in the virtuoso arias by Hasse and Graupner.

Anna Prohaska, Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Anna Prohaska, Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

While Prohaska’s lithe soprano and impeccable coloratura technique were an ideal fit for the charmingly flirtatious arias by Graupner and Sartorio, it was the great laments by Handel and Purcell which provided the greatest impact. Handel’s “Se pietà” is perhaps one of the composer’s most dramatically intense arias, a ten-minute monologue demanding a keen sense of line in order to sustain the emotional tension. Most effective was Prohaska’s ornamentation in the da capo, understated and stylistically appropriate but infused with dramatic intention.

Similarly, Purcell’s Dido bookended the recital, opening with her Act 1 “Ah! Belinda, I am pressed with torment” and finishing with her famous lament. Though Prohaska’s soprano lacks the depth and richness that a mezzo-soprano would offer, her customary vocal and interpretive intelligence offered much else. Against the ground bass, her ornaments were constantly surprising and beautiful, leaning into the chromaticism of the line in a way that effectively conveyed the character’s despair. And lest we think Purcell only composed sad arias, Prohaska told the audience after sustained applause, she and Antonini on soprano recorder offered a charming duet from the same opera that sent the audience home with a smile on their faces.

****1