Sharon Carty and ensemble, at the Long Gallery, Castletown House, Celbridge, Co. Kildare, on 4 June 2016

Evoking the old cliché about mezzo soprano roles, mezzo Sharon Carty gave this concert the catchy title ‘Witches, bitches, and britches’, though it’s one that sits oddly with the flamboyant elegance of Castletown House – not to mention the mellow mood of a summer evening. While that title may have done the job of securing publicity and an audience, the actual programme on offer proves far more substantial.

Sure enough, the first half includes a mix of arias for male characters with high voices. Now that castrating dozens of pre-pubescent boys on the off-chance of creating a superstar has (thankfully) gone the way of leeches and powdered wigs, one of the remaining alternatives – then as well as now – is simply getting a female singer to cross-dress. Having recently sung the roles of Ariodante and (in last year’s Agrippina) Ottone, this is a situation that Carty is well used to, though her choice of arias betrays an interest in the more introspective high-singing men, rather than the power-crazed figures one might imagine.

In arias by Nicola Porpora, Handel and Vivaldi, Carty presents three restrained, stoical characters, each patiently waiting for storms of passion to pass, and reminding us of the radical stillness of baroque theatre. This makes for warm, glowing music, and Carty brings a gentle force to this material, singing beautifully sustained phrases with all the freshness and clarity we have come to expect. In the sympathetic acoustic of Castletown’s long gallery there is much to enjoy, especially in the excellent interplay between the singer and the ensemble (led by violinist Claire Duff and harpsichordist David Adams).

After all the patient lovers, the instrumental players pay homage to another waiting game – due recognition for women composers – with a lucid reading of the Sonata No. 1 in D minor by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, an intense and intriguing work. The only vocal fireworks in the first half come in the virtuosic aria ‘Son qual nave ch’agitata’ [I am like a ship tossed on the waves] by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi. It’s a real showpiece, treating the audience to a spectacular performance of rapid-fire acrobatics from the singer.

After the ‘britches’ roles, the ‘witches and bitches’ of the second half fit less easily into their appointed labels. Medea may be the unhinged baby-killer of Greek myth, but in Charpentier’s opera (still scandalously under-performed in either Britain or Ireland) she becomes a complex, tragic heroine. Hints of this darkness come through in Carty’s performance of the central aria ‘Quel prix de mon amour’ [Such is the price of love] though its interpretive depths prove less easy to project than the more obviously visceral ‘Noires filles du Styx’ [Black daughters of Styx], to which she lends a brilliant intensity.

In an elegant piece of programming, Carty links Medea with another character who chooses poisoned clothing as her preferred weapon, Dejanira in Handel’s Hercules. She delivers a riveting performance of the ‘mad-scene’ aria ‘Where shall I fly?’, her richly colourful singing matched by dramatic, gutsy playing by the ensemble. The instrumental contribution in this half includes a fluently stylish account of Vivaldi’s ‘La Follia’ Trio Sonata in D minor, superbly played. To close, Carty reprises a success from last year with ‘Lascia la spina’ from Handel’s Roman oratorio The Triumph of Time. Richly hypnotic, it proves the perfect way to end this evening’s entertainment, and the audience rise to offer a deserving standing ovation.

Programme:

Nicola Porpora: ‘Se pietoso il tuo labbro’ from Semiramide Riconosciuta; Adagio from Sinfonia da camera

Handel: ‘Tacerò, purchè fedelè’ from Agrippina

Antonio Vivaldi: ‘Sovente il sole’ from Andromeda liberata

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre: six movements from Sonata No. 1 in D minor

Riccardo Broschi: ‘Son qual nave ch’agitata’ from Artaserse

Marc-Antoine Charpentier: three movements from Concert pour 4 parties de violes, H.545; ‘Quel prix de mon amour’, ‘Noires filles du Styx’ and three instrumental movements, from Médée

Handel: ‘Where shall I fly?’ from Hercules

Vivaldi: ‘La Follia’, Trio sonata in D minor, RV 63

Handel: ‘Lascia la spina’ from Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno

Sharon Carty (mezzo soprano); with Claire Duff and Anita Vedres (violins), Lisa Dowdall (viola), Aoife Nic Athlaoich (cello), and David Adams (harpsichord)

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