My time in Paris has been all about the mezzos, and particularly mezzos with baroque ensembles. First it was Vivica Genaux and Capella Gabetta, then Joyce DiDonato with Il Complesso Barocco, and then last week, Bernarda Fink with the Academy of Ancient Music, for which I did the unthinkable – albeit with permission – and ditched a Walküre.
They were worth the sacrifice. Unlike Vivica's and Joyce's concerts, this one wasn't linked to an album release, and nor was it anywhere near as singer-centric. Bernarda's contributions accounted for slightly less than half of the already shortish programme but each one was searingly memorable: Merula's agonising and exquisite "Hor ch'e tempo di dormire", Vivaldi's "Sovente il sole" from Andromeda liberata, and then Il pianto di Maria, a cantata by Ferrandini which Wikipedia helpfully informs me spent a long time being misattributed to Handel. As if he didn't write enough of his own.
None of it was cheery, upbeat stuff and Bernarda was mesmerising, her candlelit voice charged with all the pain and transcendent serenity you could want from a lady who spent most of the night embodying the Virgin Mary. It was the heavenly Sara Mingardo who taught me Merula's haunting lullaby; Bernarda's performance was a very different creature: more jagged, less hypnotic, every bit as moving. Not knowing the Vivaldi aria, I expected fireworks, but despite a few flourishes this was a slow burning flame and I wanted it to last forever. By comparison, Ferrandini's cantata almost did last forever: it was a twenty-five minute tour de force.
It's not as if the burnished beauty of Bernarda's voice, or her compelling artistry, came as a surprise, exactly; I've spent the best part of a decade falling in love with her voice by degrees, until finally I realised she'd been one of my favourites for years. But I'd never seen her live – never seen her looking half broken by the end of each lachrymose piece – and it's added a new dimension to my appreciation of her. It's also left me desperately wishing to see her in opera: if she inhabits concert pieces this intensely, what must she be like in character? The venue also helped. The auditorium of the Musée d'Orsay is not the most beautiful in the world (grey vinyl seats, anyone?) but the acoustic is excellent and it seats just 347 people: it doesn't get much more intimate than that.
I feel unjust, spilling so much over the singer and not yet mentioning the orchestra, who, after all, played the entire concert, and much of it on their own. I'm prepared to say it's the best baroque playing I've heard on this trip. They've had stiff competition, to be sure, but there was something about the fluidity, fullness of tone, and sheer esprit de corps of the AAM which completely won me over. I'm lamentably hopeless at getting properly excited about the non-singing bits but no such worries here: the orchestra, led by the wonderful Rodolfo Richter (whose playing in the Vivaldi concerti was sensational) was a source of pure delight all night.
In fact there was only one problem with this whole concert. There just wasn't enough of it. Not even an encore! My heart broke a little. Then again, you could see a show twice as long and emerge half as fulfilled; this was baroque music at its best, virtuosic and full of heart, and while Wagner might not forgive me for abandoning him, I'm pretty sure I made the right choice.