The last time we saw Sonia Prina she was striding around the stage dressed as a teenage boy, beset by a raging band of punk schoolgirls in Glyndebourne’s St. Trinian’s-like take on Handel’s opera Rinaldo. What with love trysts behind the bike sheds and explosions in the chemistry lab, it must have been a relief to get that out of her system.
This Wigmore Hall recital marked a return to sanity. The Italian contralto – a rare description these days, when the low voices of singers such as Kathleen Ferrier seem to have gone out of fashion – was the soloist in an evening devoted almost wholly to Vivaldi, accompanied by the period-instrument group Il Pomo d’Oro.
After several centuries of neglect, Vivaldi’s operas suddenly sprang back into the public consciousness when Cecilia Bartoli released a CD of hand-picked arias in 1999. The disc fired up enthusiasm for Vivaldi generally, in part because Bartoli’s singing was so extreme, and all types of his vocal music have since started turning up more often.
In this programme Prina focused mainly on solo cantatas. As with so much of Vivaldi, it is difficult to tell one from another, but Prina gave the tumbling showers of semiquavers in “Perfidissimo cor!” a sheen of poetry and kept the adrenaline pulsing through the stormy drama of “Amor, hai vinto”. Compared to Bartoli, she has more voice and is less prone to exaggeration, which are two plus points. Prina is at her best when the music is fast, as she has boundless energy and her dark, low voice delivers an exciting cut and thrust. In slower numbers the soft tone is attractive enough, but it lacks electricity, and the level of intensity – so high elsewhere – dropped below a crucial threshold.
Il Pomo d’Oro, directed from the violin by Riccardo Minasi, are further proof of how Italy’s early music movement has blossomed in recent years. In between the vocal items they played a sinfonia and two of Vivaldi’s 230 or so violin concertos, in which Minasi displayed a beautifully sweet tone. It was Stravinsky who complained that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 400 times – true maybe, but a sample from them every so often is not unpleasant.