SHE may be hot soprano property internationally these days but Elizabeth Watts rarely misses an opportunity to return to Sheffield – and is back again next week.
Having arrived here initially from her native Norwich as an archaeology student at Sheffield University, she left in 2002 to study at the Royal College of Music and what is proving to be an illustrious singing career was on the launch pad three years later.
But despite her many achievements – Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2006, winning the Song Prize in the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World and earning national and international plaudits: “one of the most beautiful (voices) Britain has produced in a generation” – she still keeps coming back to Sheffield. She sang at the Bradfield Festival at the end of June and will return next April for a concert with Sheffield City Opera.
“I love the place. I miss it and I’ve got lots of friends there. It’s a great city and it’s very friendly. I like to go back,” she said between performances of Handel’s Rinaldo with Glyndebourne on Tour last week.
Liz’s concert with harpsichord at Firth Hall next Tuesday in the University Concert Season includes the well-known Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo as one of three Handel arias, but the evening is dominated by nine from the pen of Alessandro Scarlatti.
Why the interest in the not exactly over-exposed Italian composer?
“I came across some Scarlatti arias and thought these are really good but nobody does them, so I’m running some for a project (ongoing) at the Wigmore Hall at the end of November with the English Concert (a period instrument band),” explains Liz.
“There are some really fantastic arias that people never hear. Often people sing them as arie antiche (antique arias), learning to sing bel canto style with piano, without knowing the one they’re doing is probably an orchestral aria from an opera, so you don’t get any idea of the drama behind it.
“Without the context to perform it in, it’s a more abstract thing and I want to get drama across and show what a great composer Scarlatti was.”
He was but his somewhat shadowy figure obscures his stature and the inventiveness of superbly crafted music, at least on the evidence of what it is possible to hear and find among what Liz aptly describes as the “tons” he wrote – 115 operas, of which around 60 survive, more than 600 cantatas for solo voice, 28 for two voices, 20 oratorios, 40 motets and so on.
Active mainly in Rome and Naples, he was born in 1660 (died 1725), 18 years before Vivaldi and 25 years before the respective births of Handel and Bach in 1685.
Particularly important in the development of opera, among other things he is seen as the founder of the influential Neapolitan (Naples) school of the genre, liberated dramatic expression (in sung music generally). He established the da capo aria and introduced the accompanied recitative.
He was also the stimulus behind the Vatican lifting its ban on performances of opera in Rome!
While what name he has today rests largely on his cantatas, his operas are practically unknown – five can be tracked down on commercial (including a live DVD) and pirated recordings, one of the latter being Tigrane (1715) from which Liz is singing two arias.
She says: “It’s quite well known but there’s an opera called Mitridate Eupatore that’s supposedly the apex of Scarlatti’s career but I cannot find a score of it! I don’t think there’s been one published.
“I’ve found one for Tigrane but it’s never done. I haven’t seen a Scarlatti opera mounted – it’s probably because the plots are a bit weak,” laughs the soprano mischievously.
“When you mention Scarlatti arias in the early music world, a lot of people say, ‘oh, cantatas – not operas’.
“My arias are a mix from operas (from two others), cantatas (three, one a three-handed serenata) and oratorio (two). I’ve tried to bring a palette of colours in the arias to the table – it’s very exciting! I really want to bring the best of Scarlatti to people.”
It sounds as if Firth Hall is a sampling?
“Yeah, it’s the beginning of the journey, really. There’s more on my list but I can’t bite off too much at once.”
She’s too busy to do that: “It doesn’t stop me, actually,” chuckles the much-in-demand singer.
Does she ever stop?
“Not often,” she admits amid gales of laughter. “I had a bit of break over summer, the first I’ve had since I don’t know when.
“That’s partly the job and partly, I enjoy it.”