Opera Night with James Laing

Reviewer's Rating

‘Divas & Scholars’ organises musical events to spread knowledge and enthusiasm for opera by giving an audience direct experience in a range of delightful social settings of both compelling performances and educational insights into the art of opera from those very same performers.

This particular evening was devoted to the art of the counter-tenor and was set against the suitably exotic backdrop of Tramp at 40 Jermyn Street where the décor takes you from Deco to 16th-century panelled Disco in a few steps. As performers and guides the audience enjoyed the company of James Laing as performer, James Black, music agent and former counter-tenor, as impresario and interlocutor, with Claire Habbershaw providing keyboard accompaniment.

We began with Laing’s elegant delivery of Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’, which was followed by Black’s succinct history of the emergence of the counter-tenor voice, highlighting the negative contribution of Saint Paul’s admonitions against female performance, and the importance of the ‘castrati’ of yesteryear, tantalisingly just out of reach of the era of effective recordings. We then moved into a sequence devoted to Handel arias illustrated with fascinating discussion of performance practice and illustrated by two arias from operas that we now hear much more regularly than in previous years. Laing gave us the well known ‘Ombra Mai fu’ from ‘Serse’, with an exquisitely floated top note at the end, together with the less well-known ‘Cara Sposa’ from ‘Rinaldo’. This last was totally fascinating as he also gave us two alternatively pointed ornamentations of the final section which demonstrated not only his technical skill, but more importantly gave us a graphic embodiment of the task of the Baroque singer in providing insight into character through improvisation. This was in itself a fine illustration of the dual role of ‘Divas & Scholars’ in giving us instruction through demonstration – and furthermore showing the logic and power of the much-maligned ‘da capo’ pattern of aria composition.

Black’s historical exposition continued through the desert (for the counter-tenor) of the 19th century into the wealth of material provided for this voice in contemporary music. Here a key figure was Benjamin Britten. We heard Laing deliver a powerful yet lyrical rendition of Oberon’s ‘I know a bank’ from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ It was intriguing to learn how hard this piece is for many counter-tenors to sing given that it was written to suit the low register of the original dedicatee, Alfred Deller. It was also particularly interesting for me to hear once more the aria which Laing had performed at Opera Holland Park this year in Jonathan Dove’s ‘Itch’, a piece which was ideally suited to the range and timbre of his voice. This was a highlight of that performance I heard in the summer, and it resonated even more successfully in the intimacy of this setting. We ended the concert with two classic items of English Art Song repurposed for the counter-tenor voice – ‘King David’ by Howells, a classic statement of the two-way relationship between human sorrow and the world of nature; and Vaughan Williams’ ‘Silent Noon’. Each of these was delivered with a grave idiomatic grace.

This was an evening that was totally absorbing in its deep dive into the repertory and creative resourcefulness of the counter-tenor voice, while the performances had charm, bravura and indeed humour in abundance. In that vein, and as an encore, we enjoyed both singers in Rossini’s ‘Cat Duet’ – feline wit to be sure, but no vocal or human scratches.