Countertenors are now so common on the modern opera stage, it’s easy to forget that their revival and rise in prominence is only recent. That Iestyn Davies is the first to have been given a residency at the Wigmore Hall – a world-renowned recital venue with Lieder at its heart – makes the point.
Having established himself on both sides of the Atlantic with two Handelian roles (as Armindo in English National Opera’s Partenope in 2008, then Unulfo in Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera three years later), Davies wisely began his four-part concert series – titled “A Singularity of Voice” – on familiar ground. Focus was on the composer’s London output, beginning with “Eternal Source of Light Divine” from the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, before presenting a series of extracts from his mature work for opera and oratorio.
It has become fashionable for countertenors to develop a somewhat fruity – at times, hooty – timbre, but Davies’s voice remains true to the English choral tradition, of which he is a product. Its purity is astonishing, and here, for the most part, he chose to impress with quiet, introspective arias.
At times it sounded effortless; in “Splenda l’alba in oriente”, an Italianate cantata composed in 1713 to mark the feast day of St Cecilia, Davies displayed technical accomplishment and dramatic poise, and in sections of “Your Tuneful Voice” from Semele, his voice had the delicacy and refinement of spider silk. A crack at the end of “Sento amor”, an aria from Partenope, simply reassured us that he is human.
Throughout, Davies was accompanied by the Ensemble Matheus, directed by Jean-Christophe Spinosi. Their performance of Telemann’s Concerto in E minor for flute, recorder and strings was one of the evening’s highlights. It was a clever choice – the first phrase of the Largo matches that of Handel’s “Where’er you Walk” – and the virtuosic solo parts and climactic sense of joie de vivre offered a pleasant contrast to the rest of the programme. Jean-Marc Goujon and Alexis Kossenko, on flute and recorder respectively, performed with an almost balletic grace.
In showcasing a range of roles originally written for countertenor, castrati and mezzo-sopranos, Davies reminded his audience of the countertenor’s long heritage. In the subsequent concerts – to include Britten’s Canticles and the premiere of a new song cycle by Nico Muhly – he will show how it has developed over the past half century.