The OAE Presents Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Three eras of divasAnna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.9.2012. (JPr)

Haydn: Symphony No.85 La Reine
CherubiniDei tuoi figli la madre from Medea
GluckDance of the Furies and Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orphée et Euridice
O malheureuse Iphigénie from Iphigénie en Tauride
Berlioz: Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cite from Les Troyens
BizetSymphony in C

‘Not all audiences are the same’ was discussed in the printed programme as the ‘strapline’ and the hook for the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment’s 2012-13 concert series. It went on to discuss ‘We not only wanted to celebrate something very important to us, our loyal audience, for without you there would be no Orchestra, but also to question who classical music is for. Hopefully we’ve demonstrated the dramatic distance between reality and the stereotypes associated with classical fans …’. I applaud the OAE’s wish to alter people’s preconceptions – and indeed the programme showed an eclectic mix of audience members’ photos. But if they are really part of the OAE’s ‘loyal audience’ then they must have had something better to do than come to this concert as the Royal Festival Hall was only sparsely occupied and it was one of the smallest attendances I have seen there for some while. Even Sir Roger Norrington came to the platform and appeared to open his arms to the orchestra in a ‘Is that all that are here?’ sort of gesture … though of course it might have been about something else. Actually, having to sit through Anna Caterina Antonacci singing in the first half two arias with which she seemed very uncomfortable, I thought wistfully about leaving myself at the interval. I was glad I did not because this was very much a concert ‘of two halves’.

Haydn was Kapellmeister for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy and this kept him very busy but it did not prevent his reputation spreading beyond the borders of Austro-Hungary. About 1784 he received a commission from the newly-formed ‘Le Concert de la Loge “Olympique” Paris’ organised by the masonic lodge of the same name. He composed six symphonies for them, Nos. 82-87, and they were performed to great acclaim during 1787-8. Queen Marie Antoinette attended the concerts and it is believe she especially liked No.85 and so it gained its nickname La Reine. With their famous period-specific instruments compounding Sir Roger Norrington’s infamous lack of vibrato the OAE provided a delicate filigree of sound during what must be one of Haydn’s most mellifluous symphonies. What I noticed during the charming Allegretto second movement was how much, during her bird calls, Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute sounded like the piping sounds from an old-fashioned merry-go-round. Here and in following ländler-like Menuetto Norrington and his small ensemble relished all the French influences Haydn had incorporated to appeal specifically to those French musical tastes.

Then soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci sang her Cherubini and Gluck arias either side of the latter’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits and the least said about her contribution here the better, as with a poorly supported voice she sounded like a dramatic mezzo singing totally the wrong repertoire. Norrington had an appealing way throughout the concert of engaging the audience by turning and smiling at the end of movements. He also did this after a delicately ethereal Dance of the Blessed Spirits whenhe swivelled to encourage some applause because it transpired he had changed the order of the concert without prior notice. This music was supposed to be after the Dance of the Furies with the Iphigénie en Tauride aria not placed between the two instrumental pieces. Anyway, wouldn’t Che farò senza Euridice? have been more suitable? The short Dance of the Furies was slightly edgy but suitably lively.

In the second half Anna Caterina Antonacci came into her own with her tone at last finding its true focus. She gave an engrossing and impassioned rendition of Dido’s farewell from Berlioz’s Les Troyens and as an encore, Carmen’s Act II Les tringles des sistres tintaient that was undoubtedly the highlight of this concert. This was so breezy and sinuously sexy that it was a pity that the programme for this concert as ‘originally conceived around Carmen and Bizet’ was not followed through. I believe Ms Antonacci would then have been happier and there would have been a bigger audience present.

Finally the OAE performed Bizet’s precocious 1855 Symphony in Cthat he wrote when he was 17 and suppressed during his all-too-short lifetime. The opening Allegro has reminisces of Beethoven and Schubert, the Scherzo is intriguingly Mendelssohnian in revealing some charming Scottish-sounding influences and there are fleeting hints of Carmen in the moto perpetuo Finale. The symphony is full of youthful exuberance that the baton-less Norrington, who is approaching his ninth decade, fully embraced.

Jim Pritchard

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