January 2, 2014 5:54 pm

Sonia Prina, Wigmore Hall, London – review

The Italian mezzo performed arias that Handel composed for the celebrated castrato Senesino

Planning a concert around the operas that Handel wrote for Senesino is not a new idea, but it can make a satisfying evening. As the most celebrated castrato (or male soprano) of his age, Senesino inspired some of Handel’s greatest operatic music and a selection of arias composed for his voice guarantees a programme with many vocal high points.

In the past 20 years or so the Senesino-based recital or CD has become a favourite of today’s countertenors. But there is no reason why a mezzo-soprano should not claim the territory as her own, as Italian mezzo Sonia Prina – best known in the UK as the schoolboy hero in Glyndebourne’s wacky production of Rinaldo in 2011 – did here at Wigmore Hall.


IN Music

Unless somebody revives the old Italian practice of castrating promising boy trebles, we will never really know how the great castratos of the 18th century sounded. (Only one castrato survived into the era of recording and he is thought to have been past his best.) Descriptions talk of Senesino’s “great fire” in energetic music, which Prina surely equals with fiery singing of infectious abandon, but they also describe the unearthly beauty he could bring to slow music. Prina’s deep, warm mezzo is rather soft-grained when she sings quietly and she is less interesting in lyrical arias than when drama or energy are called for.

For this Wigmore Hall recital she was accompanied by the period-instrument group Ensemble Claudiana, directed by lutenist Luca Pianca. Nimble and stylish, they provided some attractive instrumental numbers and at a maximum of eight players made easily enough noise for the Wigmore.

The programme included some, though far from all, of Handel’s finest arias for Senesino. In the lyrical arias from Radamisto and Rinaldo Prina’s warm singing did not match the beauty of today’s best countertenors, such as Andreas Scholl or Iestyn Davies. But she was scorching in the mad scene from Orlando and had energy to spare in the racing semiquavers of her chosen arias from Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda, even if her fondness for dashing downstairs to booming low notes at the climaxes threatens to become an affectation. Prina’s encores were all high-octane coloratura spectaculars. She knows where her strength lies.


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