Entente très cordiale
Royal Albert Hall
George Frideric Handel: L'allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
Tristan Hambleton (treble), Sophie Daneman (soprano), Paul Agnew (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
William Christie (conductor)
Les Arts Florissants
There was room to dance in the arena of the Albert Hall for Les Arts Florissants' performance of Handel's L'allegro, and it was a small wonder nobody did. William Christie's Franco-American-Saxon-English confection skipped the religious seriousness of Milton's melancholy for pure euphoria. If at times the L'allegro sections seemed little more than decorative, conjuring visions of an eighteenth-century hampster dance, they were never less than utterly delightful. And by downplaying the melancholy, Christie's performers, particularly the picturesque Sophie Daneman as the Penseroso soprano, steered well clear of the Anglican piety that lurks in the Penseroso music and risks knocking you out with boredom in some of the Moderato section. After the dull and worthy first night of the Proms, the wonderful lightness was more than welcome.
Christie used the resources of the original version of L'allegro: a soprano singing the Penseroso sections, a treble singing the soprano Allegro music, and tenor and bass (both in Allegro music only). The edition was also that of the first performance, with an extra soprano aria and the revised chorus at the end of the first part. (After the delightful ring dance of Mark Morris' production of L'allegro there might have been a riot if this wasn't included.) Having a single soprano for Il Penseroso made it more like an operatic role -- the texts move through the different times of day -- in contrast to the dances and commentary of the Allegro singers. It's possible that Handel had a gendered angle in his original assignment of singers, sentimental soprano and boisterous men.
Daneman had a touch of the plaster saint in her poses, but her singing, although pinpoint accurate (with wonderful trills in Sweet bird), brought out a kind of facile drama in the music that was closer at times to something nineteenth century. Paul Agnew was infectiously cheerful in the tenor music, and Andrew Foster-Williams was jolly though a bit woofy at times in the bass music. Tristan Hambleton seemed totally underawed singing in the cavernous hall (though he might not have been audible from all seats), and was also enchanting. The chorus, singing with impeccable English pronunciation, and orchestra performed with the appropriate bravura, and Christie was as ever worth watching quite apart from the wonderful music he delivered.