The Alaska-born mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux has made Venice her home for some years now, and she is deeply involved in the baroque music world in Europe. For this reason her American appearances are all too rare, although we can look forward to hearing her sing Isabella in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri with the Pittsburgh Opera in April and May and Arsace in Rossini's Semiramide at the Caramoor Festival in the second half of July. She came to Carnegie Hall fresh from a recording engagement in Florence: Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte with David Daniels and other distinguished baroque singers with Europa Galante under the great Fabio Biondi. This past summer, Christian Steiner brought her to the Tannery Pond Concerts in New Lebanon, New York, where I first had the opportunity to hear this remarkable singer, scholar, and musician.
While her interests include Rossini, the German Lied, and zarzuela—and her 2003 LA Opera performance in Gluck's Orfeo won her the highest praise (cf. our review of the current Met performance)—her Weill Hall concert focused on the baroque. But to be just to her collaborators and their program, I must emphasize that this sold-out event was not entirely her concert. It was shared equally with members of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, who played Vivaldi concerti between arias from operas by Vivaldi, Handel, Broschi, and Hasse, to whose work Ms. Genaux is especially committed. She has worked closely with Hasse specialists, especially the J. A. Hasse Gesellschaft of Munich and its late director, Dr. Klaus Müller, to whose memory this concert was dedicated. One of the most enjoyable developments in contemporary music-making has been the emergence of period instrument groups who are dedicated to restoring the freedom and intensity of the great baroque players, typically Vivaldi and Tartini. Among the leaders in this trend are Andrew Manzi in the UK, Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy in Québec (soon to play in the Troy Chromatic Concerts), and Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante in Italy. Vivica Genaux has performed and recorded both with Labadie and with Biondi. The Venice Baroque Orchestra formed under the leadership of Andrea Marcon in 1997 after they played together as a pickup orchestra and found that they enjoyed playing together so much that they decided to make their own permanent group. This sense of friendship and fun, which goes beyond collegiality, was apparent the the music-making at Carnegie Hall. Mr. Marcon has said that the musicians are so close that they cook and eat together, bringing ingredients along with them on tour and creating spaghettate after concerts. Vivica Genaux mentioned in her introduction that their proximity in Venice and its environs allow them to stay in close touch and to rehearse frequently, saying, "it's almost like having a private orchestra." Conversely, the Venice Baroque Orchestra were able to claim their own private singer. This concert was a enterprise among equals.
The intimate relationship between Ms. Genaux and the orchestra was vividly apparent in every bar. They are very much a collection of soloists, and they listen to each other closely as they play, responding subtly to each other nuances, and Ms. Genaux sang as very much one of them. For personal reasons, Andrea Marcon did not come on the tour. Luca Mares led quite informally as first violin, but when the cello or the lute was in the foreground or playing a solo, the other musicians followed the dominant instrument. There must be more control when Marcon is present, but the spirit of the performance can't be much different. In the intimate space of Weill Hall the orchestra produced a full, big sound, even though there was only one player per section. Their attacks were strong and full of bite. Each musician poured his or her own personality into his playing, even in tutti. Using a lute rather than a harpsichord freed the orchestra and the soloists from equal temperament. The underpinning provided by the continuo section or the double bass alone was forceful, rich and dark. One certainly felt no need of a larger ensemble.
All the works for orchestra alone were by Vivaldi. The played the opening Concerto in G Minor with sharply defined rhythm, enriched with considerable rubato when necessary. Ensemble was tight, but not finicky. After two arias by Vivaldi and Hasse they took up Vivaldi's ever-popular Concerto in D Major for Lute, Strings, and Continuo, RV 93. The famous slow movement began with an a elaborate improvisation by Ivano Zanenghi, a truly amazing musician, who played with abandon and seemingly endless imagination. much to the delight of his fellows and the audience. In the textual part, his playing and that of his colleagues was so very sensitive to the mood and inflections of this over-familiar music that they made it entirely fresh. Its appeal was so direct that I'm certain that the movement would make a wildly successful pop single in Europe...or perhaps my mind is still in the 1960's when Vivaldi and Albinoni went to the top of the charts. Sgr. Zanenghi received applause that was every bit as warm as Ms. Genaux's, and in truth he is a soloist of the same caliber. His sprezzatura continued to delight the audience through the evening. Cellist Francesco Galligioni's playing was equally daring, with a stunning solo in slow movement of the A Minor Cello Concerto. As far as I know, only Europa Galante play this repertoire with such intensity and fire.
Ms. Genaux's arias covered a wide emotive range, and her performance showed her characteristic musicality, scholarship, fanatical preparation, and dramatic insight. Before each piece in a program, she always pauses to enter fully into the mood of what she is about to perform. As I mentioned in my review of her Tannery Pond recital, there is no border between acting and singing for her. Dramatic expression is an integral part of her phrasing, and rhetorical phrasing and rhythm of delivery are part of her music-making. Her first aria was from Vivaldi's Tamerlano (Bajazet), Irene's "Sposa son disprezzata," a pained complaint of a neglected wife. Expressive dynamics and rich ornament brought out the pathos and rhetorical power of Irene's lament. Her brilliant top filled Weill Hall almost to bursting, while her shaded lower range brought in a rich viola-like color.
Johann Adolph Hasse (1699 - 1783), born in Bergedorf near Hamburg, was trained in Venice and Naples, returning to the German world only in 1730 as a mature musician, settling in Dresden, where he catered to the Italianate tastes of Augustus the Strong and Friederich August II, who moved his court to Warsaw in 1734 and freed Hasse and his Italian singer wife to return to Venice. Working closely with Metastasio for a time, he composed numerous operas for Dresden, Warsaw, and Vienna, returning often to Italy, where he died in 1783, that is after the first performances of Mozart's Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail. His long career overlapped both those of J. S. Bach and Mozart. Arias like "Nelle cupe orrende grotte" from Senocrita show galant ornament on a Handelian foundation, as well as a certain psychic nervousness that goes along with it. Some passages even hint at Sturm und Drang. Ms. Genaux sang the aria with the kind of total commitment that can't fail to convince the listener, and she made me, for one, eager to see a full production of one of Hasse's operas.
Riccardo Broschi was the brother of Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, the legendary castrato. "Qual guerriero in campo armato" from Idaspe, first performed in Venice in 1730. This bravura piece, which Ms. Genaux has recorded on the cd Arias for Farinelli, was just the sort of thing the great castrato throve upon, considered unperformable until quite recently. Ms Genaux brought it off splendidly, using her dark lower register most effective for expression and color.
"Cara speme" from Giulio Cesare is one of those broad, noble melodies of Handel's, expressing a yearning fortitude in a reflective mood. Genaux conveyed every bit of this, adding fiber with precisely turned and elegantly shaped ornament. The accompaniment, provided by the continuo alone, was equally expressive, with Galligioni, Sbrogiò, and Zanenghi putting their all into it. "Dopo notte" from Handel's Ariodante is a splendid example of the brilliant, energetically ornamented writing for castrato which Vivica Genaux has made one of her specialities. In the opera, one of Handel's finest, the hero himself sings the aria in response to the final, happy twist of the plot, which defeats injustice and brings the hero and his beloved together. Ms. Genaux put herself entirely into the masculine character, filling Weill Hall with Handel's joyful strains, a magnificent conclusion to a remarkable concert.
Of the encores, "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's Rinaldo, a time-honored recital favorite among mezzos (as well as in its variant "Lasciar la spina," from Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, invited comparison with older singers like Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, and Cecilia Bartoli. Genux avoids chesty emotivity and vibrato in favor of a disciplined period approach which relied on the phrasing and shaping of the melodic line to achieve its affect, which was just as touching. "Fammi combattere" from Handel's Orlando brought the evening to a fiery, heroic conclusion.
It's no wonder that Vivica Genaux has found a niche for herself among superb Italian period orchestras like the Venice Baroque Orchestra and Europa Galante. This is quite a different from what we hear in opera houses in this country. (Only the Boston Early Music Festival performances approach it.) It is much more intimate: the singer can interact with the musicians as an integral member of the group. What's more a recital like this gives singer and orchestra an opportunity to become even closer. The Venice Baroque Orchestra went on to Boston and played a highly praised program of Vivaldi concerti for the Boston Early Music Festival. Meanwhile this January evening with Vivica Genaux will be remembered for a long time to come.