Few serious fine music fans would disagree that Ann Hallenberg is currently in peak form. The Swedish mezzo-soprano’s career does, however, seem to have taken a rather unusual turn: as she suggests herself in conversation, her vocal range has expanded upwards, with a concomitant increase in flexibility, and she appears less frequently on the opera stage, and more in recital and concert mode. She is also creating a library of unusual recordings* featuring the output of long-forgotten composers and honouring long-dead singers, whom she nonetheless characterises as her colleagues. These are not the usual Baroque works of Handel and Vivaldi; even Vinci, Bononcini and Porpora are practically household names these days. Working closely with her husband, musicologist Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg, she describes herself as a musical archaeologist, uncovering hidden musical worlds and re-creating them for modern audiences.

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Her most recent recording, however, features a Handel opera (led by Fabio Biondi), Imeneo. It is, typically, not as straightforward as it might seem: this is a work originally composed and performed in 1740, then revised by Handel for his 1742 season in Dublin (which also saw the first exposure of Messiah). It is this latter version which has just now appeared, in which Hallenberg’s role of Tirinto has been expanded, and some of the earlier arias (and fun and games) have been dispensed with, and there is a lot of music recycled from other works, especially Handel’s last opera per se, Deidamia. Tirinto in Dublin was sung by Susannah Cibber, for whom it seems Handel had a special affection, and for whom he expanded the alto role in Messiah (compared with the autograph), leading to the famous outburst of the Reverend Delaney. (Hallenberg says she would like to have her sins publicly exonerated by a member of the clergy during a Messiah performance, but no luck so far). The most complete recording of the 1740 version under Spering sixteen years ago also features Hallenberg as Tirinto, so there is added interest in comparing the two.

While she is considered a Baroque specialist, Hallenberg was musically educated in Sweden as a traditional opera singer, and did not have any specifically baroque training until moving to Karlsruhe sixteen years ago, and indeed, how many people would have? She acknowledges, however, how much she has learnt from working with conductors specialising in Baroque music, particularly the late and very much lamented Alan Curtis, who “picked her up” very early. She is now one of the Baroque music world’s most admired artists, and at least two up-and-coming countertenors account her a role model.

Hallenberg’s recital at Karlsruhe was accompanied by Danish conductor Lars Ulrik Mortensen and the Deutsche Händel-Solisten, although “accompanied” is probably not quite the right word, as they were equal contributors to the evening’s excellence. The concert began with a Suite from Rameau’s opera Platée, a rather bitchy story about an unprepossessing frog who gets ideas above her station. The orchestral suite is suitably playful, and was conducted by Mortensen in an exceptionally expressive manner, and also very active, somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas McGegan’s conducting style but far more graceful. This was followed by excerpts from Handel’s Hercules, whose heroine Dejanira has long been one of Hallenberg’s signature roles. She sang three arias on this occasion, which run a whole gamut of emotions, starting with the accompagnato & aria “The world when day’s career is run”. Here, as throughout, one could only marvel at her impeccable English diction, close textual reading and full body acting of the part. “Resign thy club” released a torrent of fury, jealousy and sarcasm, while “Where shall I fly”, often characterised as a mad scene, raised the fury stakes to a whole other level. Her total inhabitation of the part almost obscured the very fine technical detail of her singing – perfect intonation, even production across its considerable range, sheer beauty of tone – all subsumed into a final product which sounds fresh, spontaneous and uninhibited.

After an interval, Mortensen led a sprightly and sensitive rendition of another Rameau suite from Les Boréades. Hallenberg returned with one of her best known roles, Handel’s Ariodante, and two of its most famous and demanding arias, “Scherza infida” and “Dopo notte”. The former is one of the most exquisite cries of pain imaginable, and reduced the audience to pin-drop silence, and quite a few tears. It featured a spectacular cadenza which still managed to be entirely consistent with the emotional tone. “Dopo notte” was a fine contrast. It would be hard to imagine a better version – I haven’t heard one – that expresses the pure joy that Handel distilled in this aria, without any visible or aural hint of effort or artifice. “Lascia la spina” (from Handel’s Italian oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno) was an endearing and touching encore, again showcasing Hallenberg’s finely wrought vocal skills and attention to text and meaning, not to mention an exceptional rapport with her colleagues on stage as well as the audience.

One particularly interesting aspect of this and her other performances is the role of vocal embellishment, especially in Baroque music; Hallenberg’s adornments always seem particularly judicious, organic and virtually improvisatory, and not just thrown in to dazzle, (although they often have that effect). It was surprising to read that, in the past at least, she was somewhat hesitant about writing her own, and was happy to accept those produced by conductors who have strong views as to how they should go. These days however she expresses more confidence about her own abilities in this regard, although decorations do seem to come from unexpected places. In the recording of arias for Luigi Marchesi, a castrato singer from the bel canto era, many of the decorations were written by Marchesi himself, and preserved till the present day. The stunning cadenza used by Hallenberg in “Scherza infida”, originally sung by the countertenor Carestini, survives in a manuscript signed by William Savage, the boy soprano who sang Oberto in the first Alcina. And perhaps most surprising of all is the cadenza for Graun’s aria “Mi paventi”, featured on Hallenberg’s Agrippina CD, (and which we agree is a totally insane aria), which was found playing on an 18th century musical clock.

Given Hallenberg’s ability to sink herself into any given role, it seems a pity that she is to an extent turning away from staged opera. She says that, while she loves opera, that world is becoming “increasingly harder and more unforgiving”, with more and more power concentrated in the hands of directors, whose choices are not necessarily rooted in the music. She is neutral on the subject of modern stagings, enjoying them if they fit the music and allow the expression of genuine emotion. She observes that while the Baroque opera realm used to be more welcoming, these days, with its expansion and greater acceptance in the wider opera sphere, it too is becoming a less comfortable space in which to work. People with whom she has worked consider her to be a generally “calm and positive” influence, always thoroughly prepared and infinitely collegial, so it is perhaps not surprising she seeks other forms of artistic expression. She says she enjoys recording, where she can take risks, and totally relishes the hunt for the long-forgotten gems waiting to be exhumed and polished up; in the end however she agrees that the greatest satisfaction is still to be found in live performance, which might not result in note-by-note perfection, but reaches audiences in a more personal and exciting way. 

*Hidden Handel, Arias for Marietta Marcolini, Agrippina, Arias for Luigi Marchesi and more to come.

Sandra Bowdler

(Photo copyright : Sandra Bowdler)