A nice little show yesterday afternoon, John Eliot Gardiner rehearsing a Bach cantata with the English Baroque Soloists. I like John Eliot Gardiner. Not as unreservedly as I adore William Christie but still, he does excellent things and it's fascinating to watch him at work. His work with the chorus especially, his attention to the significance and the nuances of the German text, details like the best pronunciation of the vowel in "quälen" or the shades of meaning in the various ways the word "Strahl" is set: meticulous but never pedantic, and the results he gets from the choir are immediately evident and strikingly effective. Particularly fascinating for me, however, was watching Sara Mingardo in action. Slightly strange, this. It seems hardly possible that such a voice is in fact produced by a mortal, by a flesh-and-blood woman. You sit and watch a singer, apparently like any other, simply doing her job, singing Bach. But the sound of it. She may be of this earth but her voice surely is not. And she finishes, and the world goes on, and John Eliot Gardiner says "beautiful" and everyone keeps working - and nobody stops to say: just a moment, where in the world did that come from? Except me.
Then tonight, Monteverdi. Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, from Glyndebourne, 1973. Featuring a cast of psychedelic Renaissance-Seventies-style suitors, Odysseus seemingly dressed as a teddy bear, a decidedly unheroic-looking Telemachus and in the midst of it all: the phenomenon that is Dame Janet Baker. Now, Janet Baker is a singer I've long admired but never entirely warmed to. Tonight, for once, the connection was made. Not only a glorious voice but a performance of near frightening intensity. As usual on the Arts Channel, no subtitles: but such power in her singing that even when I'd no idea what specifically she was saying, I felt beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had understood. She was surrounded by suitors dressed in ridiculous shades of pink and yellow and sporting outrageously hideous haircuts and she transcended it all, by turns terrifying and adorable. How any man could dare to continue his slimy advances after she declares her chastity - "Non voglio amar no no" - is quite beyond me. However perhaps best of all is the gradual and dignified ecstasy of the final scene, the reunion with Ulysses. In her singing and in her nuances of expression she reminds us that there is a world of difference between reunion after a short separation, and reunion after twenty years of hardship, uncertainty and hard-won chastity; to me she is a more convincing and more human Penelope than Homer's. Besides all of which, of course, she sings this music like nobody's business, and it burns.