There’s a moment you sometimes get in a live performance by a singer at the peak of their powers, singing something astonishing by a composer of genius, a moment when you feel like there’s a laser light between them and you. Everything around you dissolves. You are so caught up in the moment, it’s almost as if “you” dissolves too. There’s just the sound and your body absorbing it and your heart and soul exploding. I had such a moment (in fact several) at the recent concert performance of Catone in Utica at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. And they were all thanks to one singer – Ann Hallenberg.
The omens for the performance had been a bit shaky – replacements were announced and they were singers I was unfamiliar with. Having fallen in love with the CD recording that had been the progenitor of the evening I was disappointed so many of the original cast were missing and worried that such a virtuoso piece might stretch the replacements too far. But these days any Baroque in a major venue with at least some well known Baroque specialists is too rare to miss. I could not have been more delighted when we rolled out the theatre at the end of the night absolutely high on the performances we had been lucky enough to witness.
The opening had indeed seemed to confirm my worst fears. The first recits and arias seemed nervy and underpowered and my heart began to sink a little. One of my favourite singers, Sonia Prina, kept leaving the stage clearly not well but equally clearly determined to give this everything she could. And then Hallenberg come forward for Emiia’s first big aria.
I had spent the night before marvelling at the way the search light on the Eiffel Tower electrified the Paris night sky. Hallenberg did the same thing to the theatre, the audience and it seemed the rest of the cast that night. From that moment on the whole thing caught fire. You know Baroque is being done right when the (let’s be honest) at times stunningly dull recits seem to flash by as Hallenberg and the substitute for Roberta Mammeli – Caitlin Hulcup – fired off aria after aria of such power and energy it was exhausting just listening. On my side of the stage the audience started to rouse – excitement crackled around the balcony. By the time the interval came there were huge smiles all around. However we had only just begun. We came back to Hallenberg, as the song goes, lifting us higher and higher. My companion hit the nail on the head when she noted that unlike some other perhaps more famous mezzos it’s not just that the voice is astonishing – and it is, truly, astonishing – but that from the first second she stood to sing until the moment when a smile of pleasure broke across her face at the curtain call (before skipping off like a little girl on the last day of school before the holidays – very sweet) she *was* Emilia. By the end the audience let rip with a fantastic roar of approval for a cast and orchestra that overcame some tricky moments to bring us this truly magical evening of the Baroque.
I was so grateful to the wonderful alto Sonia Prina who somehow managed to produce a powerful performance despite a clearly ailing body. I was intrigued by the voice of Nerea Berraondo – a new to me singer listed as mezzo but with some wild low notes that sounded more alto-ish to my untrained ears. Up in the balcony the serious lack of power in her voice was a huge problem, but what I could hear was intriguing and from the incredible slightness of her frame I guessed she is very young and perhaps this will change. I was really delighted to have discovered Caitlin Hulcup, who had she been singing on a stage that did not also contain Ann Hallenberg would have been the stand out queen of the night. But Hallenberg was gloriously there, and the night did belong gloriously to her.
I will never forgot that performance; I am like an addict awaiting their next fix (at the Wigmore Hall in April, if you want to know what it’s like to have the world stop and bathe you in sound so beautiful you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it – for tickets go here). Like the Eiffel Tower at night she achieves the impossible – her voice reaches in so far, so powerfully, that everything dissolves. We were lucky that her role called for her to sing without orchestra at several points. In those moments especially, with no other sound but that voice, we are caught like tourists gawping at the Eiffel Tower at night, unable to grasp the wonder of it, but knowing that we are in the presence of something rare, and wonderful, and unutterably beautiful.