There was an expectant buzz at Milton Court as Handel-lovers gathered to hear the fruits of the latest collaboration between Jonathan Cohen’s Arcangelo and Christopher Purves who shot to operatic superstardom for his mesmerising portrayal of Saul (Handel again) at Glyndebourne in 2015 and central roles George Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, the latter being Walt Disney.
Purves briefly introduced the programme with relish, describing many of his Handel characters as “bastards”. They certainly embody the moral Wrong in opera and oratorio and Purves’s opener ‘Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto’ from Rinaldo provided a fabulous, villainous entrance, complete with hissing effects. Purves’s refined and expressive articulation was matched in every way by Arcangelo’s vivacity, whether in the strings or the virtuoso trilling oboe of Katharina Spreckelson. A change of mood followed with ‘Gelido in ogni veno’ (Siroe, re de Persia), a plangent, melancholy larghetto of remorse, which exploited the beautiful sonorities of Purves’s dark range.
The evening was punctuated with racy Concertos grosso (Opuses 6/5 and 3/4) and the Overture to Agrippina injected pace as an intense and regal theme shifted in emotions from noble surging to pathos. The Overture led in to ‘Opprest with never ceasing grief’ from Belshazzar, a shaded and intimate reading of complex grief and revenge, where tone and emotion were perfectly combined by Purves, and the thrilling sense of dramatic anticipation from Arcangelo extended into Purves’s ‘Ah canst thou but prove me’ from Athalie.
Polyphemus’s jocular aria from Acis and Galatea, ‘O ruddier than the cherry’, set a light-hearted mood to the second half, and recorder-player Rebecca Miles delighted with her prowess and bits of comic business. The testing ‘Fra I’ombre e gl’orrori’, plumbed the depths, with a range of two-and-a-half octaves and Purves never wavered in pitch or agility. The elegant Overture to Theodora segued into Valens’s implacable ‘Rocks, gibbets, swords and fire’. Arcangelo’s joie de vivre was infectious. Two arias from Esther, Handel’s first English oratorio, closed the programme, a change of mood and timbre for Purves. Each aria is a mini-drama that was imbued with dramatic intensity, and Somnus’s invocation ‘Leave me, loathsome light’ from Semele formed the encore.