Les Arts Florissants bring Campra to BAM

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In 1697, the Comédie-Italienne almost managed to make fun of the court of Louis XIV but were forcibly disbanded for their trouble. In 1710, André Campra’s opera-ballet Les fêtes vénitiennes tried to bring the italianisme and the politics back to Paris.

Last weekend, Les Arts Florissants brought it to New York.

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Les Arts Florissant’s David et Jonathas at BAM

I went to see David et Jonathas by Les Arts Florissants at BAM and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

New York is again lucky to host William
Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Their visits are always special, and it’s not just because the unique
nature of their repertory – Baroque opera, usually French, which is
neglected by most of New York’s major companies – nor the virtuosic ease
with which they embody this otherwise-foreign idiom. Their productions
have a passionate unity of purpose and a loving, handcrafted quality
that somehow seems antithetical to many of our more slick and snarky
local efforts. Their present offering, a touching production of
Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, has little in common with
2011’s Atys, but fortunately these virtues are again in full force.

You can read the whole thing here. Highly recommended. It’s a great and extremely unusual work with a fantastic musical performance and a smart production. Performances that meet one of these three requirements are unusual enough, ones that fulfill all three far more so. Still could have used some program notes, however.

This production will also be released on DVD on April 30.

Photo copyright Julia Cervantes

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Eliogabalo: when too much is just too much

I went to see Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo as produced by the Gotham Chamber Opera at The Box and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Describing its new production of Francesco Cavalli’s 1668 opera Eliogabalo, the Gotham Chamber Opera compares the exploits of titular depraved Roman emperor Heliogabalus to Salome. There’s an obvious mistake here: Salome
is an opera; Heliogabalus was a historical figure. While the Gotham
Chamber Opera has done a valuable service by bringing this compelling,
interesting opera onstage, the production unfortunately makes the same
mistake, confusing a few historical accounts with the very different
aesthetic of 17th-century Venetian opera.

You can read the whole thing here. (In my discussion of the intersection of seventeenth-century orchestration and burlesque, I introduced the Bachtrack editorial staff to the phrase “bump it with a trumpet.”) This production didn’t work because it was one-note while seventeenth-century Venetian operas are heterogeneous. Venetian opera is closely associated with Carnival (in that respect the timing of this production was really bad–sorry, you go through one Viennese Holy Week of Faust, Parsifal, and Dialogues of the Carmelites and the idea sticks with you forever). But Eliogabalo is something far more interesting than a celebration of excess.

I thought of Calixto Bieito’s fantastic production of Platée, which I saw last summer at the Staatsoper Stuttgart (and didn’t blog about, sorry). It’s set in a nightclub, though not in the environmental theater sense of The Box. The Studio 54-like club (a good modernization of the ancien régime) provides an ostensible freedom for an outsider like Platée. But the hierarchy of court life is always lurking just beneath the surface, and the outsiders never escape their eventual punishment. Eliogabalo never leveraged its similar setting with this kind of dramatic intent.

The singing was fine but most of it was not very stylish. New York doesn’t attract enough people with extensive experience with this music. (The Wooster Group’s utterly bonkers sci-fi La Didone mashup was better sung, actually, and far more compelling.) The US’s cavernous opera houses and conservative programs confine all but the most famous Baroque operas to boutique outfits like Gotham, but unfortunately based on this production they lack the expertise to present these works to their best advantage. Gotham is, usually, a very strong company, and I hope they’ll try another early Venetian opera soon with better results.

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Le poème harmonique’s distant mirror

I went to hear Le poème harmonique playing Monteverdi and such at Columbia and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

In his 1995 book Text and Act,
the musicologist Richard Taruskin wrote of the historically-informed
performance movement, “the very recent concept of historical
authenticity is implicitly projected back into historical periods that
never knew it.” To be fair to the French group Le Poème Harmonique,
whose program “Venezia” opened the Miller Theatre at Columbia
University’s season, their press release trumpeted an “eye-opening
approach to opera using historical gesture” rather than textual
authenticity. But the program also claimed to depict 17th-century Venice
from the “streets to the palaces,” and, as my companion remarked,
Venice doesn’t have any streets. It has canals and calle, alleys.

Read the rest here. You may gather that I didn’t like this concert much! It’s a real shame the Konzept proved so misguided, because the actual performances were decent and the rep was interesting, so I wish I had been able to appreciate it. I do not wish to pile on and therefore will refrain from having another Program Notes Smackdown here, but I do want to note that there is absolutely no scholarly consensus that “Pur ti miro” is by Ferrari as the notes state. Also, why did this program not feature Arianna’s lament? It’s arguably only semi-Venetian, but it’s so good!

Administrative note: I can’t promise much blogging for the next few months, but I am going to Einstein on the Beach tomorrow, and will get out to Elisir d’amore as soon as I can.

Here’s a piece that was not on Wednesday’s program (and Neapolitan rather than Venetian): the Lamento della pazza, attributed to Pietro Antonio Giramo, given an audacious performance by Anna Caterina Antonacci.

photo copyright O. Matsura

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Telemann’s Orpheus at the City Opera

I went to see Orpheus (not that one… or that one… or that one) at the City Opera and wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The New York City Opera has spent the
season reinventing itself from a large company with a large theater to a
peripatetic one presenting small works. Perhaps it was apt that they
closed their season with Telemann’s Orpheus. Not only was it
one of the first stagings of any Telemann opera in the United States: it
also presents a radically reworking of a familiar story that seems
unwilling to confine itself to one geographic location.

Click here to read the whole thing. It’s an intriguing work but not ultimately a spectacularly rewarding one, at least in this production (though Jennifer Rowley is really great in the central role!). It was also an extraordinarily odd choice to produce. (I heard that it resulted from George Steel meeting someone who has worked on it extensively. Not from research in “baroque operas we should put on.”) I’m all in favor of choosing weird and random repertory, so on the one hand I’m proud of them for doing it. But on the other, are we running before we are walking here? I mean, when it comes to recently discovered operas, New York (unless you count New Haven) hasn’t gotten a staging of La finta pazza yet, which is a much more important work. When you have such a tiny season each choice has to be good, and this one while it was promising didn’t quite pay off.

Also be aware that while the running time is listed on the website as two and a half hours, it was just shy of three on Saturday. El Museo del Barrio’s theater is functional enough; I was sitting too close to the front to judge the acoustic properly.

photo © Carol Rosegg

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Enchanted Island: No man or woman is a…

 Contrary to anything you may have read, the Met’s The Enchanted Island pasticcio does not feature a cameo by a wisecracking René Pape as the Skipper.* But it’s got just about everything else. Everything, that is, except a reason for us to care. An all-star cast belts out top Baroque tunes in a beautifully designed production, but thanks to Jeremy Sams’s insipid, self-indulgent libretto, most of it ends up being much ado about nothing. Why can’t we have actual Baroque opera instead?

Various, The Enchanted Island. World premiere pasticcio, Met Opera, 12/31/2011. Assembled by Jeremy Sams, conducted by William Christie, directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, sets by Crouch, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lights by Brian MacDevitt. With David Daniels (Prospero), Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), Danielle De Niese (Ariel), Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban), Placido Domingo (Neptune), Layla Claire (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Paul Appleby (Demetrius), Elliot Madore (Lysander), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ferdinand).

The Enchanted Island has hitched itself to the eighteenth century pasticcio tradition, a conglomeration of old music set to a new story. But it’s a 21st-century creation through and through, as I think its creators would readily acknowledge.** Jeremy Sams is responsible for the libretto. In a rewrite of The Tempest, Prospero is situated on the titular island (which makes whooshing noises identical to the one on Lost) and must confront the challenges of age, Ariel, and his lady-rival Sycorax (who is already dead in the Shakespeare). But rather than the intended Ferdinand, the honeymooning four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream wash up instead. While Prospero’s responsibilities to the island and Ariel seem to be the central plot problem, most of the work’s time is spent with these four, who along with Miranda and Caliban go about doing what Shakespearean lovers do best: fall in love with the wrong people.

The music selection (here is a list) has some nice pieces and the sung texts are relatively smooth, but the shifts between the eight different composers selected can be rocky. Handel dominates, but the bits of French stuff harmonize poorly, and some of the Vivaldi sticks out as well. Many da capo arias’ B and A’ sections have been lost at sea, and some (presumably newly-composed) recit is pretty stylistically wonky (and I’m not sure where all the chamber-scored bits and accompagnato came from). More severe is the feeling that much of the music was chosen largely at random and shoehorned into the plot just as forcibly as the Midsummer lovers were. Some transpositions of duets and arias up and down octaves are quite peculiar (most strangely Vivaldi’s coloraturific “Dopo un’orrida procella” given to a baritone Lysander and “Arise ye subterranean winds” given to a soprano Ariel), and the expression doesn’t always line up either. Baroque music often was retexted back in the day, but that doesn’t mean that any sentiment goes.

Old story, old music–it’s less a story than a simulacrum of a story, the pale imitation of something we’ve all seen done before, and better. It unfolds bumpily and shapelessly, aided by the magical character’s spells in the service of a librettist who seems to think himself exceptionally clever. Yet there’s little genuine wit on display, and even less adult emotion, and sincerity, nor a clear emotional trajectory. These are all things you can find Baroque opera, but in the pastiche-ing they’ve been misplaced.

This was all the more dispiriting because the production is simply gorgeous, with lush costumes and projection scenery on a screen behind an elaborate second proscenium. (There are many more photos at the bottom of this post.) The visual style is original and whimsical and poetic and unfortunately rarely tries to upstage the action. Only a few Disney-ish moments of sparkle seem cheesy. The other effects are lovely, though I wish the rest of the audience hadn’t started applauding over the music when the ship sank.

But the island is disenchanted. We’re told that the superficiality proudly espoused by this work constitutes “fun.” We don’t have to wonder why Prospero is obsessed with making everyone move piles of wood because they’ve left that weird bit out! But, three-quarters of the way through Act 1 I found myself, probably aided by a certain degree of sleep deprivation, in the throes of an existential crisis that had been building up all season. If Enchanted Island was a failure, an attempt at a fun romp that ended up sort of tangled, then too bad, maybe the next one will work. But what if it was, on its terms, a success? What if this is our fun now? What if now all we desire of opera is this exquisitely crafted nothing, smug and regressed to childhood and utterly irrelevant to anything that makes us human? Why are we creating “art” that in many ways isn’t art at all? Maybe I should pack it in and start going to the movies more. Then I wouldn’t be asking all these damn rhetorical questions.

Two things happened that while not up to salvaging the evening at least made me stop contemplating das Ende. The first was the biggest coup de theatre of the production, the entrance of Placido Domingo as Neptune. He arrives on a seashell flanked by ranks of mermaids to the strains of “Zadok the priest,” robed and wearing a gigantic beard. It’s an image of sufficient outrageousness and novelty as to overpower the fact that his subsequent scene does not advance the plot and our tenor appeared to have not looked at his music ahead of time, kept getting behind Christie, and didn’t know the words (compounded by the juxtaposition of Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi in close quarters, one of the evening’s least felicitous moments of pastichery). The staging had finally upstaged the far inferior text with sheer audacity.

The second moment was in the second act and can be described as Caliban’s coming of age, when Helena leaves him for her recovered Demetrius. With his mother Sycorax’s revival, Caliban’s status in the plot is kind of unclear. Also he’s a monster in KISS tribute makeup. But the sting of his rejection is the most comprehensible emotion we’ve seen yet and Luca Pisaroni played him with such sweetness and honesty that I found myself, for the first time, in a real story. Joyce DiDonato’s Sycorax, to this point a scenery-chewing caricature, turns human and three-dimensional. The following masque-style dream sequence, set to French music, has a plot that seems to be misplaced from the Great Courtesans of History ballet excised from November’s Faust and features some strangely aerobic choreography from Graciela Daniele, but the change of pace is welcome–more dance would have been great. Unfortunately Caliban is more or less dropped as a character after this.

Such is one’s fate in a work whose cast is the operatic equivalent of Love, Actually so prepare for a list discussing the singers. We’ve already covered Placido, and Pisaroni, who sings as well and expressively as he acts, and DiDonato, whose coloratura is great and stage presence significant but whose singing has this kind of constant tension that keeps her sound edgy and tightly wound, including in some places where that isn’t ideal. Danielle De Niese managed to make the very annoying Ariel not that irritating, though he (Ariel) bears the brunt of the plot mechanics. She (De Niese) engaged in some approximatura at inadvisably fast tempos in Act 1 but carried off the popular Vivaldi showpiece “Agitata da due venti” surprisingly well–though, it must be said, the aria is cut down to only its first section.

The most beautiful tones of the evening were from the lyric sopranos Lisette Oropesa as Miranda and Layla Claire as Helena, both of whom I hope I will be hearing lots more of in roles where they can develop characters. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was great in “Where shall I fly” from Hercules, I mean here she was Hermia. David Daniels was in the nominally central role of Prospero but did not make a strong impression and sounded thin and effortful, though his singing is musical. Stronger was the powerful countertenor of Anthony Roth Costanzo in the Fortinbras-like role of Ferdinand, who made the most of his one aria and duet. As Demetrius and Lysander, Paul Appleby and Elliot Madore were fine but made less of an impression than the women.

William Christie must, for better or worse, must bear much responsibility for this affair as well. As for his conducting, it was good. It was, as one would expect, very fast. This had a much less percussive and crisp effect with the Met’s modern orchestra than it would have with a historical practice one, and sometimes the singers were challenged. Still, he knows the style and got the orchestra sounding more Baroque than I would have expected. The instrumentation was small but not so small as to sound dinky.

But the entire thing left a bitter taste, a dumbed- and watered-down evening that is for the most part not actually that fun. I suspect this was a one-off experiment, and it’s not one I would be eager to repeat. Can we give a real Baroque opera a shot next time, please?

*It also lacks a cameo by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt crying “Ze plane! Ze plane!”
**See also Text and Smacked, I mean, Text and Act.

More photos:

 
 

 
 

Photo copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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The music of The Enchanted Island

The Met has released a list of the music used in their upcoming pasticcio, The Enchanted Island. The selection ranges from well-known (“Agitata da due
venti” is apparently David Daniels’s or possibly Danielle De Niese’s 11:00 number, and “Endless pleasure”
from Semele is set as a quartet [?]) to relatively obscure items.
Handel dominates, and the French music provides most of the dances.
Placido Domingo will arrive as Neptune to the strains of “Zadok the priest,” best known to British people for its use in coronations and as the “Champion’s League” theme song.

In case you were wondering, the plot will combine The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You can read a synopsis here (PDF). It sounds a little complicated?

I spent some time on the YouTubes and put together these playlists of the originals. The first contains the music of Act 1 and the second Act 2, in the order they will appear. (Remember that in the pasticcio they will be contrafacted, that is given new texts.) I wasn’t able to find everything but did locate most of it. Some of the videos are longer excerpts of which the pasticcio will use only a part. A few of the interpretations here aren’t ideal, but many are outstanding, reminding us how far Baroque performance has come in the last decade. (Keep an eye out for our favorite Simone Kermes, who brings her best dance moves to Vivaldi’s “Dopo un’ orrida procella.” Sadly, her Met debut is yet to be announced.)



Previously: Enchanted Island and baroque opera

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On “Enchanted Island”

photo Grove Music Online

I should be writing about Dark Sisters right now but to quote Rick Perry I stepped in it on Twitter this morning regarding the prospects for the Met’s new Baroque pasticcio, The Enchanted Island, and I wanted to explain a bit more without the constraint of 140-character installments. While I tend to be pessimistic, condemning a piece before it even premieres is rather mean-spirited and I should probably avoid doing it. But I can’t shake the feeling that this won’t be doing Baroque opera (a field in which I have had, sigh, some degree of involvement) any favors and here’s why.

A pasticcio is a conglomeration of various preexisting pieces into a new dramatic whole. They were indeed extremely popular in the Baroque as a vehicle for various greatest hits, as Horace Walpole said, “Our operas begin tomorrow with a pasticcio, full of my most favorite songs.” Almost all early operas were subject to some substitution and addition of music by other composers. It wasn’t until opera reached northern Europe around 1700 that newly assembled works became established–those cities lacked their own composers to assure a steady stream of new works. The Grove entry includes this recipe from an anonymous 1705 account of music in London:

Pick out about an hundred Italian Airs from several Authors, good, or bad, it signifies nothing. Among these, make use of fifty five, or fifty six, of such as please your Fancy best, and Marshall ’em in the manner you think most convenient. When this is done, you must employ a Poet to write some English Words, the Airs of which are to be adapted to the Italian Musick. In the next place you must agree with some Composer to provide the Recitative … When this is done, you must make a Bargain with some Mungril Italian Poet to Translate the Part of the English that is to be Perform’d in Italian; and then deliver it into the Hands of some Amanuensis, that understands Musick better than your self, to Transcribe the Score, and the Parts.

The pasticcio became a way for in-demand composers to become more prolific, cranking out new works from old music. Handel did this a great deal.

My initial objection to Enchanted Island was that the Met website lists the included composers as Rameau, Handel, Vivaldi, “and others.” This mixture of Italian and French styles seems to me a recipe for trouble, others protested that this contrast was part of the genre. But I don’t think it is! I couldn’t find records of a single pasticcio that includes a French composer. Sometimes Gluck was mixed in, and other German (or British) composers who wrote in more or less an Italian style, but never a French one. The two schools were considered independent. It’s really a big difference. I fear that Enchanted Island will fall into the trap Burney saw in a production of Orfeo, in which “the unity, simplicity, and dramatic excellence of this opera, which had gained the composer so much credit on the Continent, were greatly diminished here by the heterogeneous mixture of Music, of other composers, in a quite different style.”

But the larger question is of the Met’s duty to Baroque repertory. I’m not sure if it should have one at all; the theater is just too big to go about it properly and the lack of a period instrument band in the pit is a major problem. But if they are going to do it they should try to do the genre justice. Of Baroque composers, in the modern era the Met has produced only Handel. But Enchanted Island seems more a way of producing something with a star cast and spectacle than it is to introduce new music to the Met audience. Why go to the lengths and risk to create a new work when there are many, many wonderful Baroque operas that the Met has never produced? For all the house’s size, one of the really grand French Baroque works by Lully or Rameau could maybe work.

It seems our concept of the authority of the composer is variable. We turn our noses up at cutting Wagner and Strauss but let Baroque works get slashed apart. The justification for this is historical–it was only in the late nineteenth century that the idea of Werktreue got started, and earlier composers never expected that their texts would have such closed status (though in the present day we sometimes extend Werktreue back as far as Mozart–just ask Riccardo Muti about early Verdi or Cecilia Bartoli about her alternate Susannah aria). But it seems to me like a double standard. Why do we grant Wagner greater sanctity than Handel just because he lived at a time when his works were considered more closed? Why are we so eager to chop up the Baroque repertory, music that the Met has shown little advocacy for in the past? Why can’t we accord it at least a modicum more respect and allow it to speak on its own terms? (A modern concoction that doesn’t even follow the rules of the eighteenth-century pasticcio is not it!)

I didn’t mean to develop this so far before Enchanted Island even happens–for all I know it will be an ahistoric blast and will justify its existence in practice by being totally fun. But I’m still not happy with it in theory.

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Les Arts Florissants bring Atys to BAM

Happy fall, everyone! The opera season in New York started this weekend with Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I went and wrote about it at Bachtrack.

In 1676, Louis XIV’s court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, wrote Atys,
an unusually tragic opera that became a favorite of the king. In 1987,
William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants revived it in an acclaimed
series of performances in Paris and eventually at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music. Like Louis XIV centuries before, modern audiences were
enchanted by the work’s austere, pure declamation, grand choruses, and
graceful dances and its success was again influential.

Click here to read the whole thing. (By the way, I am blogging again. I’ll report from the Anna Bolena dress at the Met on Thursday, such as one can report on a dress rehearsal. I can’t go to opening night, unfortunately.)

This was a great performance, but I personally preferred LAF’s last big BAM project, The Fairy Queen. This is probably because it was so funny and different and as a semi-opera had a lot of novelty value for me. This is the kind of novelty that Atys had when it was first performed in NYC in 1987 1989. Lully opera has become more established but hardly commonplace since, so some of that freshness is still there today, but not to the same radical degree–I’ve certainly heard a lot more Lully than I have semi-opera. How much of Atys‘s original success was due to the novelty of French Baroque and how much due to the production’s undeniable excellence?

This is part of the reason why I’m a little disappointed that Les Arts Florissants have redone Atys instead of creating another production to expand our limited repertoire of French Baroque opera in New York (LAF has done a lot more in their home base in Europe but only a few of those productions have come to BAM). I know that this new iteration came into existence solely because of the generosity of a philanthropist, and we should be grateful for that! And 22 years is a long time, perhaps too long to begrudge a repeat. But I still am a fan of variety, and if you only know Atys you don’t know the full diversity of the French Baroque. I recommended some DVDs in the review, here are some clips. Most of these productions are a lot more daring and modern than Villégier’s Atys.

Most similar to Atys is Lully’s Armide, which is way better than Rossini’s and the LAF’s DVD is awesome. The Armide is Stephanie d’Oustrac who was Cybèle in Atys in France (and in the forthcoming DVD) but did not come to New York, unfortunately. Her replacement was talented but a little undersized for the role. D’Oustrac is epic.

I love this goofy, almost all dance production of Rameau’s Les Paladins.

Finally, this isn’t Les Arts Florissants, but I remind you of the DVD of Cavalli’s Ercole amante from De Nederlandse Opera that I wrote about a year ago, which is a fusion of French and Italian
styles.

Photo above © Pierre Grosbois

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Berenice: Handel’s other Egyptian queen

Actually, make that Handel’s other other Egyptian queen, because while Cleo is definitely No. 1, I think sort-of queen Seleuce in Tolomeo is more popular than Berenice. Alan Curtis recorded this obscure lady in 2010 on Virgin Classics, and brought his Il complesso barocco and most of the same singers to the Theater an der Wien for a concert performance last night. It’s not quite top-drawer Handel, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, particularly with a performance this good.

My Week of Living 18th Century continues.

Handel, Berenice. Concert performance in the Theater an der Wien, 1/27/2011. Il complesso barocco conducted by Alan Curtis with Klara Ek (Berenice), Ingela Bohlin (Alessandro), Milena Storti (Selene), Franco Fabioli (Demetrio), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Arsace), Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Fabio), Johannes Weisser (Aristobolo)

I didn’t do my homework and picked up a last-minute ticket 15 minutes before the show, sliding into my seat with only a few minutes to spare. Meaning, no time to read the plot summary. I think this may be the first time I have not even attempted to follow the plot of an opera, but to be honest it seemed complicated and not that compelling, so I just decided it was going to be Aria Night. With concert Handel, that works. And while none of the singers quite reached the lofty heights of Karina Gauvin and Iestyn Davies in last October’s Curtis Tolomeo, also at the Theater an der Wien (didn’t blog about it, sorry), they were first-rate.

Berenice dates from 1737, prime time for Handel creatively speaking (though personally not such a great year for him, with financial and health problems), but it was a flop and only ran for four performances. It’s quality stuff, but has an unusual number of smaller arias (also an unusual number of very nice duets). There are some pleasant and unusual numbers, but not many show-stoppers, and the seven roles of close to equal importance mean that star opportunities are sparse. The title character is indeed the lead, but it’s not the most thankful of Handel diva roles. She seems to be a “Da tempeste” and an “Ah! mio cor” short. However, Swedish soprano Klara Ek made the most of what there was, singing with technical accomplishment and bright, brilliant, sometimes hard-edged tone. Her biggest aria, “Chi’ t’intende” is certainly unusual in form, with many tempo changes and a complex oboe obligato part (wonderfully played by Vinciane Baudhuin), but it’s still not “Scherza infida” in psychological depth. Ek also brought a vivid characterization of a proud queen, and her animated facial expressions and occasionally extravagant gestures show her potential to develop into a Cult Early Music Diva. Kermes of the Future?

Fellow Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin was an excellent contrast as Alessandro. She has a very light and girly voice for a castrato role, but her warm, liquid, sweet singing was some of the prettiest of the evening. What is it with the preponderance of fantastic Swedish early music singers? (I am also including Ann Hallenberg from Sunday’s Ariosti extravaganza, and Anne Sofie von Otter from the Rameau of last week.) I already wanted to move to Sweden, but now I want to even more.

Countertenor Franco Fagioli doesn’t have a very even or rich voice, sometimes sounding thin, but makes up for it with extraordinary range and agility. His “Guerra e pace, Egizia terra” was the showpiece of the evening. As Fabio, magnificiently named tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani was accurate and pleasant, and the only snappy dresser in a somewhat disheveled cast. Mary-Ellen Nesi showed a powerful and beautiful low mezzo as Arsace, and Johannes Weisser, a holdover from last Sunday’s Ariosti, again sounded unfocused, though he acted well.

Mezzo Milena Storti was a very late replacement for the ill Romina Bassi in the role of Selene, and according to the preshow announcement received the score at three in the morning that day, learning it overnight. She has a round, dark voice and sang with impressive confidence, including great use of the text in recits and some playful moments in the arias, and was deservedly warmly received by the audience.

The baddest mustache in Baroque conducting, Alan Curtis, and his orchestra Il complesso barocco were the real highlight of the evening. They know this style inside and out, and play with easy, unexaggerated grace and energy, and perfect balance and textual transparency. I’ve never understood those who find Handel boring, but with playing with this kind of nuance and variety in character, well, I understand less.

Here’s this group’s CD of this opera again. If you’re in the market for any Handel opera recordings, I highly recommend Curtis’s recordings as a general policy for their excellent musicianship, stylistic accuracy, and animated drama.

Also, about that student Gluck performance of the other night, Il Parnaso confuso, at Schloss Schönbrunn: I went, I didn’t like, and I have no desire to beat up students, so that’s it. Except I wish to note that electronic composition and Gluck really don’t mix that well, in my opinion.

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