Proms 2017: Roderick Williams – Là ci darem la mano (World Première)

by 5:4

As i noted in my introduction to his answers to my pre-première questions, until the announcement was made about this year’s Proms in April, it had passed me by completely that Roderick Williams, as well as being one of Britain’s most well-known singers, is also a composer. Unsurprisingly focused on vocal and choral music, he stated that his compositional starting point is often the text, and that’s the case in his new work too, a madrigal setting of ‘Là ci darem la mano’, words by Lorenzo Da Ponte that originally formed part of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The words are a duet between the eponymous protagonist and Zerlina, whom Giovanni attempts to seduce despite her already being betrothed to the peasant Masetto. You can regard this as playfully or as seriously as you like, but there’s more than a slight ‘Carry On‘, nudge nudge wink wink character to it.

This is precisely the vein in which Williams has approached the words in his new setting for vocal ensemble I Fagiolini. Interestingly, he turns the tables on the gender roles, Giovanni’s lines sung by the women while Zerlina is represented by a cohort of men. As a result, the female voices now act in a manner akin to sirens, trying repeatedly to lure, beguile and otherwise wear down the resistance (such as it is) put up by the chaps. But i don’t think Williams is primarily concerned with making a profound comment on gender politics or stereotypes. His short madrigal is an exercise in verbal sparring, each side initially taking turns to present their arguments, yet quickly getting their words entangled, soon arriving at a wonderfully silly ‘si … non’ rapid back-and-forth between the two parties. Though light-hearted, the keen/reluctant tension captured in the piece is tangible, not only in the text but in the music’s tactical switching (on both sides) between lyricism and more ardent passages where elegance is quite roughly thrown aside.

After a time, the squabbling gets stuck in a rut, at which point the piece takes a turn for the meta, Williams inserting a narrated letter from Monteverdi to “His Highness of Mantua” concerning a madrigal he had commissioned from the composer but without specifying any details. This is amusing both from the perspective of the concert itself, otherwise devoted to the work of Monteverdi, as well as being a tongue-in-cheek self-referential dig at Williams’ own piece. The letter concluded, the voices continue to cycle and intensify, resistance ultimately turning out to be futile as they finally climax together (fnar fnar) in a heavily sighed “si!”.

Là ci darem la mano was given its world première by I Fagiolini, directed by Robert Hollingworth, at the first Proms Chamber Music concert last Sunday at Cadogan Hall. They’re clearly loving every minute in what is a highly entertaining trifle.


Roderick Williams - Là ci darem la mano
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Don Giovanni
Là ci darem la mano,
Là mi dirai di sì.
Vedi, non è lontano;
Partiam, ben mio, da qui.
There we will give each other our hands,
There you will say ‘yes’ to me.
See, it’s not far;
Let’s go there, my dear.
(Vorrei e non vorrei,
Mi trema un poco il cor.
Felice, è ver, sarei,
Ma può burlarmi ancor.)
I would like to, and I wouldn’t,
My heart is trembling a little.
True, I could be happy,
But it could trick me again.
Don Giovanni
Vieni, mio bel diletto!
Come, my beautiful delight!
(Mi fa pietà Masetto.)
I feel sorry for Masetto.
Don Giovanni
Io cangierò tua sorte.
I will change your fate.
Presto … non son più forte.
Soon…I won’t be strong anymore.
Don Giovanni
Andiam! Andiam!
Let’s go! Let’s go!
Let’s go!

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