It is perhaps inevitable that a Greek Baroque ensemble on its first visit to the Proms would want to showcase a programme with a link to its ancient heritage. Thus, on Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert, Armonia Atenea, led by their dynamic conductor George Petrou, performed a selection of Baroque operatic repertoire based on Greek myths. Yet, this is rather a broad theme, and although the programme ranged 100 years from Lully to Paisiello via Hasse and included some rare works, the selection seemed somewhat arbitrary.

George Petrou © Ilias Sakalak
George Petrou
© Ilias Sakalak

Overall, the orchestral playing from this Greek ensemble impressed. Formerly called Athens Camerata, they perform both on period instruments and modern instruments, and on this occasion, the ensemble consisted of 20 period-instrument players – strings, two Baroque flutes, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, harpsichord and theorbo. They were generally at home with the Baroque style, even if they didn’t quite capture the airiness and elegance in the suite from Lully’s Phaëton. They played the overture to Handel's Alessandro with gusto, although there was a little untidiness here and there due to the conductor taking the Allegro section too fast.

In the concert, the orchestra was joined by two Greek singers, soprano Myrsini Margariti and mezzo-soprano Irini Karaianni, who are both active in the European opera house circuit. Margariti sang two arias from Hasse's Siroe and Karaianni sang two arias from Gluck's operas, both singers coming together at the end for a duet from Paisiello’s L’Olimpiade.

A hugely successful opera composer is his time, Johann Adolf Hasse’s music remains largely unexplored so it was a great opportunity to appreciate his works. One can say that his style lies somewhere between Handel and the Neapolitan opera composers. The two arias Margariti sang from Siroe express typically Baroque sentiments: “Mi lagnerò tacendo” is a lament about being rejected in love, and “O placido il mare” is a coloratura aria comparing a woman’s heart to the sea, which was eloquently sung with spirit. George Petrou and the orchestra have recently performed and recorded Siroe in Athens with mostly Greek singers including Margariti, so hopefully we can appreciate the whole opera on disc soon.

The two Gluck arias sung by Karaianni highlighted the difference in the composer’s style before and after his operatic reform. “Non so frenare il pianto” from Antigono (1756) is a dramatic lament in da capo form, whereas Clytemnestra’s angry scene “Ma fille!…Jupiter, lance la foudre” from Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) is written in a more flowing through-composed style, displaying a tighter relationship between the text and the music. Here finally was music worthy of a Greek tragedy – Karaianni, with her dark and distinct mezzo timbre, expressed Clytmnestra’s fury to Agamemnon and her pleading to Jupiter with emotional depth. The aria was preceded by two popular orchestral numbers from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice. In particular, the Baroque flute brought an otherworldliness to the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” due to its tuning.

The concert concluded with a confrontational duet from Paisiello’s L’Olimpiade where the two charaters love each other yet cannot be united. Whether Paisiello’s opera dating from 1786 deserves a place in a programme of baroque music is another matter, but it provided a lively conclusion to this entertaining concert.