Once again the Boston Early Music Festival has shown us that elegance and energy are not mutually exclusive. As always in their performances, the superb orchestra is a leading player. At BEMF one never gets the sense that there is a divide between stage and pit. In fact, there is no pit. The players sit on the orchestra level, fully visible and physically expressive. The best exemplar of this process is leader Robert Mealy himself, who manages to seem at once gentle and passionate. I cannot say that Handel’s Almira was my favorite opera seen in the Mahaiwe, but it is a Handelian youthful adventure, and not yet quite full of sap. It is an age-old story, that of getting the right boy with the right girl. The business of the opera is a courtship process. The process must be interesting over three substantial acts for the show to work, and despite the excellent efforts of the cast, it wasn’t all the time. Through the many twists and turns, one did not sense through-going character definition. By way of comparison, one thinks of the great role of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, whose several arias pile one glory upon another and leave us with a complete, nearly Shakespearean, definition of her character. There were valiant attempts to keep Almira lively. Ulrike Hofbauer in the title role used her sizable and beautiful voice tellingly — especially the top of it — to carry us through the many ups and downs of her plight. Her sound was affecting and commanding by turns. She had a stillness which compelled you to stay with her. Colin Balzer, tenor, one of my favorite singers, has a voice of great sweetness, and his identification with the words he sings is complete. His role of Fernando, a kind of one-note Johnny, was filled out admirably even though he had to express the same sentiment repeatedly. Amanda Forsythe as Edilia used her quick-silver but warm voice to give vibrant life to the spitfire princess. I especially admired the sweetness of Tyler Duncan’s singing as Raymondo.
The challenge, the risk of counter-tenor singing, still fairly young as a revived technique, seems to appeal to modern audiences; it is a peculiar type of virtuosity just by virtue of the technique. It is only natural that the the counter-tenor revival took off in the 1950’s and developed in parallel with the historical performance practice movement. That was Alfred Deller who helped it take off, who started as a boy in a choir in the 1920’s and as an adult helped the Purcell revival in singing alto, and gave recitals of Italian madrigals and Elizabethan songs, but also singing contemporary opera, creating the role of Oberon for Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.[1. See J. B. Steane writing for Grove Music Online.] Philippe Jaroussky cites Deller’s very distinctive voice, and also James Bowman, who too inspired Britten, creating the role of Apollo for Death in Venice, as voices he listened to in forming his own, and forming as an artist, Bowman especially. Bowman gave his farewell concert in Paris only last November, and many good recordings exist of Deller. Now with some hundreds of professional counter-tenors in the world and they inching up into the soprano range, the hole in the Baroque and classical “instrumentarium” left by the extremely distinctive and castrato voice which tickled so much enthusiasm in audiences — and composers — in the 17th and 18th century is filling, or at least better circumscribed, without needing to resort to a false general preference or dichotomy determined by fashions between counter-tenors and sopranos en travestie, in recital or in opera, or between counter-tenors and contraltos.
Like all the great institutions which are celebrating anniversaries this year, Aston Magna’s 40th anniversary season is much like any other. What better way to celebrate an important anniversary than to maintain the quality one has been known for and to reaffirm the founding principles? This year’s season, launched by gala events at Brandeis and at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, will be rich in familiar repertory — Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, the Bach family, and Mozart — and familiar faces: the violinist Daniel Stepner, the gambist Laura Jeppesen, harpsichordist John Gibbons, singers Dominique Labelle, Deborah Rentz-Moore, and William Hite. Of course Stanley Ritchie will be on hand. Some very distinguished artists will be joining them: keyboard players Peter Sykes and Malcom Bilson, and Eric Hoeprich, whose Glossa recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto I just now warmly praised in a review article—and this is only a few.
Paul Dyer says he sees playing Johann Sebastian Bach as the “ultimate experience for a musician,” rightfully so, the same goes for a listener too, and in naming his orchestra after the most famous of Bach’s instrumental works, he puts his money where his mouth is, but more importantly so in the fine, detailed playing, expressiveness and unforced enthusiasm, which show much care and thought in the preparation of this program. Sydney perhaps is not and never claimed to be a great Bach town, but either way, as a lover of his music, I can feel sorely deprived of him, despite the odd performance on period instruments or otherwise over the last two years. So it felt like a parched walker coming upon a water-hole to hear a program where the whole first half was devoted to Bach and the rest to contemporary (with a small ‘c’) music. The ABO has pulled out many of the stops (within reason), assembling a larger-than-usual group of 10 violins, four violas, three cellos, one bass, two flutes, three oboes, one bassoon, two horns, three trumpets, theorbo, timpani, organ and harpsichord, as well as a choir of about 35, though of course not all of these for all pieces.
There is nothing remarkable, I suppose, in the complex associations that surrounded my visit to Avery Fisher Hall to hear, once again, Handel’s Messiah. I love the work as much as anyone with absolutely no admixture of peevishness—except for a bad performance—but I certainly can’t take it every year. This time, although the name of Peter Schreier and his distinguished soloists should be enough to attract anyone, I was drawn by my fascination with singers as conductors following the outstanding—and profoundly vocal—performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at Emmanuel Church in Boston a few months ago, conducted by Emmanuel Music’s new Music Director, Ryan Turner. Susan Davenny Wyner, for example, is another singer—a great one—who has made an especially valuable contribution as a conductor. In this respect this performance of Messiah was exactly what I expected it to be.
Artists like Maria Callas and Vladimir Horowitz seemed to possess as part of their formidable arsenals a kind of palpable risk-taking. Could he actually play it that fast? Could she really get the high note? Alexandra Deshorties is one of these artists. Her performance in the title role of Glimmerglass Festival Opera’s Medea was a real thrill-ride. She entered barely audible, and she made us listen. More than once it seemed like the role was a little much for her. But then it wasn’t. Was this consciously done? Whatever it was, it made the first act of the opera riveting, not just the end. If a word doesn’t make a beautiful sound, she doesn’t compel her voice to make a beautiful sound. Her way of gesturing, equally unpredictable, produced visible responses in the audience members around me. In short, this is my kind of singer.
Nicholas McGegan and his merry band of singers and instrumentalists rolled into Tanglewood on Tuesday night (August 16) to wrap up their tour of Handel’s great opera Orlando after taking it to Germany, Chicago, and New York City. The wear and tear of a tour were nowhere evident in their joyful presentation of music and theatrics—the performers still sounded like they were in the thrall of first love with this rich and rewarding score. The only member of the cast who seemed droopy was the Orlando of Clint van der Linde, and this was clearly the persona that he adopted for the misanthropic hero who seems to have lost touch with his inner Achilles. We had to wait for the mad scene late in the second act to see him take charge of the stage; then, if there had been any scenery, he would have chewed it up.
A contemporary art dealer I know once exclaimed, as I was taking him around and old master drawings show I had organized, “this stuff has a lot of history. There’s a lot of history here…” as if history were a tangible quality that was somehow imparted to an object, whether by the artist, or by the physical touch of time, or by the many people who had successively owned it, or perhaps by something else…history! Every two years in June, history pours into the already deeply historical city of Boston in the form of historically-informed instrumentalists and singers, musicologists, historical instruments, historical instrument builders, historical editions, and manuscripts. Only a few of the historical folk—locals, most likely—knew that history was being made all around them, while some were immersed in the Roman de Fauvel and others were enraptured by Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, as I was. As I sat down for the performance, I noticed a few more empty seat than I might have expected, and during the first intermission, I ventured out on Tremont Street for a few minutes.