Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – Les Arts Florissants/William Christie @ Barbican Hall

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato HWV55 – Ode in three parts to a libretto by James Harris and Charles Jennens (after John Milton) [sung in English]

Rachel Redmond (soprano), Leo Jemison (treble), James Way (tenor) & Sreten Manojlović (bass baritone)

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 14 March, 2022
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Handel composed L’Allegro in 1740 – one year before Messiah, and the same in which his last opera was premiered – at a time of transition in his musical career. With the declining fortunes of his Italian opera company, he had been experimenting with various forms of English language compositions instead in order to pique the interest of his London audiences. Unlike his great series of oratorios (mostly to follow in the decade to come) this Ode does not relate any Biblical or mythical narrative, nor even celebrate a religious theme like his two Odes on St Cecilia’s Day, but is perhaps his most humanist work. 

As an essentially philosophical discussion about two humours of man – Mirth and Melancholy – it adapts John Milton’s pair of Italian-titled poems, and might seem a rather dry subject for an ‘entertainment’ as Charles Jennens described it. But the latter’s ingenious conflation of extracts to present a dramatised argument between the two allegorised characters, and resolved by the appearance of Moderation in Jennens’s own addition to the text, acted as a creative springboard for Handel. He drew upon over three decades of experience in composing operas to provide a vivid, almost stage-worthy score whose episodes call for as many theatrical situations and emotions, characterised in music, as the series of Affekts required in the more formal sequence of arias in an opera seria.

Les Arts Florissants gave this well-balanced performance, an ensemble more noted for their interpretations of French Baroque repertoire with its idiosyncratic ornamentations and timbres. William Christie avoided importing that style here in any of the details, but there was undoubtedly a certain Gallic moderation sustained throughout this account, allowing the music’s contrasts to emerge naturally from within, rather than imposed incongruously from without, and not pausing much between movements helped to generate sufficient, but not excessive tension.  

The obbligato solos in the airs appropriately tended not to draw undue attention to themselves – soft flute twittering in charming duet with the soprano for ‘Sweet bird’; the cello for ‘But O! sad virgin’ sounding ashen and husky like a viola, if a touch hurried; nimble, glistening trumpet for ‘These delights if thou canst give’; and decorous organ support for the chorus ‘There let the pealing organ blow’. Only the rasping horn for the hunting number ‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’ only overstepped the mark with some extravagant roulades and two unnecessary interludes of whistling in its cadenza. LAF’s sizeable bass department, relative to its upper strings (four cellos and two double basses) provided a solid, sonorous foundation for much of the performance, particularly redolent of the euphony of French Baroque music. That underlined the dramatic impetus of this performance right from the orchestral introduction to the very first number, launched without any overture (Handel omitted to compose any, and none was added here despite the programme’s specifying that the Concerto Grosso Opus 6/10 would be used). The famous duet ‘As steals the morn’, serving as the work’s emotional climax, was fairly brisk, the strings’ lightly oscillating dotted figures for once actually dynamically evoking the dispersing clouds and shades as “intellectual day” breaks through. 

With LAF’s generally refined, integrated instrumental accompaniment, it was left to the vocal soloists to bring out the Ode’s inherently dramatic characterisations, which were visibly assisted by their coming back and forth from the side of the stage to the front, and sometimes singing without a score – consistently so in Sreten Manojlović’s case. It is one of the delightful – and surely deliberate – ironies of Handel’s setting that the personification of Melancholy is given to a soprano, though it is true that this should perhaps be thought of more as contemplation and introversion than despondency or depression. Rachel Redmond gave a performance of eloquent clarity and radiance, rhetorically commanding when necessary, but drawing back for more reflective numbers as ‘Come rather, goddess’. To underline Jennens’ ultimate message, however, she brought more persuasive sparkle in her invocation of Moderation, ‘Come, with gentle hand restrain’. 

James Way’s personification of Mirth tended to be rather mannered, with vowels often issuing in a drawl, occasionally even garbled so that it was impossible to hear properly the words sung. His onomatopoeic “ho-ho-ho” in the line “and laughter, holding both his sides” was suitably vivid, but his account bordered on caricature, and only when tempered brought forth a seemlier jocularity. By comparison, Manojlović’s performance as a devotee of Mirth was articulate, and humorously projected. As Mirth’s other acolyte, treble Leo Jemison sang with bell-like freshness, without the hollowness that often besets the treble voice but cultivating a more theatrical directness of expression. The LAF choir was equally fluent advocates of the respective humours as they joined in discreetly with the soloists as required – this work features no independent choruses for them.

For the most part, then, this was a performance of rare but engaging subtlety, allowing the text and music to speak winningly for themselves.

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