Rival Queens is a collaboration between Tafelmusik and Isabel Bayrakdarian showcasing music written for Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni; star divas of the 18th century who fought out a bitter rivalry on stage in London in 1726-28. The great composers of the sage, most notably Handel, all composed for them and wrote works that brought out their respective, and quite contrasted, strengths.
In the first half of the program Bayrakdarian focused on works for Bordoni. There were arias from Handel’s Alessandro (one of the works both divas performed in), Bononcini’s Astianatte and Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio. These are pieces requiring extremely secure technique. They lie fairly low in the soprano range (maybe modern mezzo territory) but have long, long, intricate coloratura runs which Bayrakdarian navigated with apparent ease. The arias were rounded out with orchestral pieces by Handel and Zelenka.
The second half followed the same format. Instrumental works by Handel and Telemann were coupled with arias written for Cuzzoni by Handel and Bononcini. The arias were more dramatic and lay higher in the range and were more obviously dramatic. They were well suited to Bayrakdarian’s range but might better suit a brighter toned voice rather than the darker instrument that Bayrakdarian’s has become. The choice of encore; between another Cuzzoni number or another Bordoni piece was settled by acclaim in favour of Cuzzoni; a decision from which this reviewer dissented! The second encore, inevitably, was Piangerò la sorte mia, from Giulio Cesare and very lovely it was. Needless to say Jeanne lamon and Tafelmusik provided entirely idiomatic accompaniment and did full justice to the orchestral selections.
Rival Queens is an interesting concept and quite fun. It’s also short; 90 minutes or so of music including encores. One doesn’t get many chances to see Isabel Bayrakdarian sing on an opera stage or with an orchestra these days so you might want to catch it while you can. I do wonder what’s in her future. Part of me thinks there’s a dramatic mezzo trying to emerge from a soprano chrysalis and I wonder how much longer she’ll stick with the light lyric soprano stuff.
There are two more performances; Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3.30pm, at Koerner Hall.