This production of Handel’s Alcina, directed by Katie Mitchell and conducted by Andrea Marcon, turns upon the complex and many-sided relationship between sand, flasks of bright blue liquid, and a luggage scanner that spits out taxidermy specimens. There is also BDSM.
I spent yesterday afternoon alternately fainting from the heat and listening to a recital from the 2015 Schwetzinger Festival by Christiane Karg and the ensemble Arcangelo, which I downloaded a while back and forgot about. It’s a pleasant mixture of Handel’s Nine German Arias and some Bach and Buxtehude concertos. I hadn’t heard the Handel in a while, and what stood out to me was the clarity and delicacy of the ensemble – or maybe it’s just hearing a different recording of these that did it. I don’t know. Karg’s performance offered some nice interpretive touches too, e.g. the energy, almost urgency of “Das Zitternde Glänzen.”
And then I did something I do not normally do: I listened to a Maria Callas recording. I have several, and they don’t see a lot of action. I think there is something in me that is deeply suspicious of a soprano who appears not to have liked Mozart (I remember one modern reviewer discussing a recording of hers in positive terms, but noting that she sang only what she liked, and much of what she liked was “junk like Tosca and Lucia.”) There is also something me that is deeply suspicious of the whole adulation of dead sopranos thing. Every time I read an older critic complaining that singers of the 1950s and 60s were profoundly superior to those performing now I just think – dude (it is usually but not always a dude), you were young then. Opera was new and exciting for you. And you got used to a certain style of performance. We folks under 40 will probably be saying the same thing about current performers decades from now.
But as far as Maria Callas is concerned, the thing is, in the 1950s at least, girlfriend could sing. The recording I listened to was one of Cherubini’s Medea, recorded live in Dallas in 1958. It’s got all the issues of something recorded live in Dallas in 1958 – that is to say, it sounds like I have cotton balls in my ears and someone has turned on the shower. Even so, Callas’s complete dramatic commitment shines through, and I admit, I find her voice interesting. Not a voice I think I could listen to for hours on end without developing a headache, but interesting. And having Jon Vickers and Teresa Berganza in the cast too doesn’t hurt either.
It turns out that you do. I went through an intensive Handel buying phase between about 2003 and 2005, so I have a lot of CDs that came out then or a few years before. I haven’t bought many Handel recitals (as opposed to complete operas) in a while, because after a certain point you realize that you have on your shelf fifteen different people singing “scherza, infida” and a different fifteen singing “se pietà” and in at least one case the same person singing each of those but on different CDs, and after a certain point you begin to experience diminishing returns.
On the other hand, there is this recital CD by Alice Coote, with the English Concert and Harry Bicket, that is really very arrestingly good. I particuarly liked the excerpts from Alcina – “mi lusinga il dolce affetto” has the same delicacy and intimacy that I remember from hearing Coote in that concert performance of this opera last fall, and in “verdi prati” she has this way of stretching out the phrases but in such a way that there is a sort of springy energy holding them together. You know how sometimes singers are criticized for “limp” phrasing? Well, this is the opposite of that. Every moment expresses Ruggiero’s sense of vanishing beauty.
The sections from Hercules are also a highlight – I always find myself thinking it kind of a bonus that Handel ended up in England and thus wrote several oratorios to English texts. With “Cease ruler of the day to rise” the contrast in my head was DiDonato, whose renditions of this express a kind of beautiful anguish; Coote’s offers a deeply felt sadness and regret. Different, but I am more than happy to have both.
Today was, as they say, a good day. No barking from the dog; no smog; I went to see Alcina and the ensemble went whole hog.
But enough of that. (Someone was playing Ice-Cube from their car as I was walking home from the subway, and one thing kind of led to another in my head.) I am not sure where to start, this performance was so much fun. Perhaps the obvious. How much do we love Joyce DiDonato? We love her plenty, including her fabulous dress and knee-high boots. I heard some people behind me commenting that they didn’t like her hair. These people are clearly without any taste in haircuts whatsoever. Fauxhawks are AWESOME. (I love writing about opera. I can have crushes and get squealy and indulge my inner fourteen-year-old and just GO ON AND ON IN ALL CAPS ABOUT HOW AWESOME THINGS ARE and I feel not a bit ashamed.)
This recording of Handel’s Rinaldo was reissued recently. I had a bootleg of it that I had been enjoying for some time, but it’s nice to have the discs too, especially at the relatively cheap price (no booklet, though). I occasionally found Vivica Genaux’s (Rinaldo’s) vibrato wider than I liked – I liked her singing on that recording of Vivaldi’s Bajazet, for example, more than I did here. But “liked better” is relative – this is a very minor issue.
Some little things that I either had forgotten or did not know. Eustazio’s aria “Col valor, colla virtù” towards the end of Act I sounds a great deal like Handel’s “tra le fiamme” cantata (HWV 170) and I had forgotten how nice the harp part is during Almirena’s “laschia ch’io pianga.” Ditto the extended harpsichord breakdown during the end of Almira’s “vo far guerra” at the end of Act II. (Do you think baroque teenagers did air harpsichord? I was tempted to. Then again, air guitar often depend on no one else being able to see you looking like a doofus playing air guitar, which requires recorded music – so perhaps not.)
This production of Handel’s Ariodante has a little twist at the end that I rather liked – it was particularly effective in that the production itself on average does not scream “weird!” or “we’re going to mess with this opera!” It’s set in what looks like a farmhouse in Scotland in the 1940s. (Or, based on the amount of hair and mild griminess and puppets and lots of chunky sweaters, possibly in the vicinity of the Evergreen State College in the 1990s.) During the overture, we see a minister, who turns out to be Polinesso (Sonia Prina) leading a religious service around the table – Polinesso reminds everyone of the evil of women and so on and so forth.
I was listening to Sandrine Piau sing “se pietà” rather than thinking about either the book project or the three syllabi I am supposed to be working on this summer, and I noticed two things.
1. Whoever input the album info that I received with the download of my copy of the album rendered the title of the aria as “se pita.” HANDEL THEMED SANDWICH SHOP, PEOPLE. THIS IS MARKETING GOLD.
2. The YouTube ad that I got preceding this video of the same track is for the Kia Cadenza. The tagline is “hard to ignore” or “difficult to forget” or something along those lines. (I mean, it’s not the Sesto but at least it’s vaguely musical. Then again, would you really buy a car that is named after something that is often improvised?)
(Previous section here)
As noted, Theodora is a stickler. In the original story the oratorio is based on, Theodora is tossed into the brothel specifically because she has been ordered to marry and she refuses, preferring to dedicate her life to religion. The marriage part is not in the oratorio. But either way, she is one of those people who stick to principle, consequences be damned. At the same time, she is still a very much a human being. The music itself reveals it, although the story does too if you pay attention.
This is one of those operas where the sex is very much present by the fact that it emphatically does not happen. I have yet to see a version of it where the two main characters fling caution and clothing completely to the winds – that would make no sense – but these two tormented souls get pretty close.
During a beautifully rendered “deeds of kindness,” Didymus (Bejun Mehta) disrobes, item by item, and in Irene’s aria “defend her, heav’n,” that follows right after, the lines about preserving Theodora’s virtue seem to be voiced not by Irene, but by Didymus’s own conscience. In the end, he intends by “sweet rose and lily” to be satisfied with only a smile for his reward – and he gets one almost immediately, but not from Theodora.
We get an unusual kind of bonus in this production of Theodora from Salzburg, directed by Christoph Loy. In Part III, in addition to the regularly scheduled music, we are treated to Handel’s Organ Concerto in G minor, HWV 310. This is not as odd as it might sound – Handel’s organ concertos HWV 306-11 were written to be performed with his oratorios, although they are separate pieces and as far as I know it’s not standard to put this one where it is in this performance. At least, none of the versions of the oratorio for which I could locate the track listing contain it.
The dramatic function of the concerto in this Salzburg production is to put some of Theodora’s inside thoughts on the outside. The additional music is inserted at a key point, after Theodora has been freed from captivity by Didymus but before she returns to give herself up to the authorities. As the music is performed, we get a kind of silent drama in which Theodora’s thoughts about the meaning of her escape are played out.
So I was watching a DVD of Handel’s Theodora, one from Salzburg, filmed in 2009. Theodora in this instance is Christine Schäfer, whose moving performance was somewhat blighted by a weird sound-recording issue on the DVD, but more about that later. Schäfer is German and when she sings in English her accent is hard to miss. During the section in Part III where Theodora shows up to offer herself for death alongside Didymus, the words seemed on the verge of tripping her up.
Or like me had technical difficulties, here (via stray) it is. Get it while you can!
This recording is not as exciting as Genaux’s Vivaldi CD, but that’s probably because it’s mostly Hasse and Hasse is not as exciting as Vivaldi. That said, it definitely has its moments. The Handel selections are some of the high points (e. g. “ti pentirai crudel”) but I am not anti-Hasse by any means. the second track, “Qual di voi… piange quel fonte” from Numa Pompilio has some beautiful writing for the oboe and voice parts – the section near the end where it’s just mezzo and oboe alone is really nice. I always enjoy the sound of Genaux’s voice – you would never mistake her for anyone else – and the way she slides so effortlessly through all the coloratura that you hear not “ornament” but rather simple, direct expression. The oboe player is no slouch either – that is some elegant and expressive oboeing. Also noteworthy were the smaller, more intimate interludes of the overture to Didone Abbandonata. Like I said, I am unlikely to go on a Hasse bender independently of Genaux, but it has a certain amount of charm.
My last baroque blitz involved Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco, and I admit I found the lively but never brow-furrow-inducing orchestral stylings of Cappella Gabetta restful. (I have enough forehead lines already, thanks.) I noticed this in both the aforementioned excerpt from Didone as well as the overture to Zenobia.
Finally, the circumstances under which this recording was acquired had the effect of confirming me in an opinion. I bought a cd out of necessity rather than downloading it, and because I usually leave my laptop at work I ended up listening to the recording via the actual disc. I was struck by how resonant it sounded. Low notes of harpsichords! Harmonics! Lute strings! I may be thirty-four years old and therefore on the youngish side as far as these things go (at least in the opera world) but you will pry my stereo from my cold dead hands.
(Addendum: imagine being named Faustina. “Hi! I’m Tina.” “Oh, is that short for Christina?” “No.”)
(I think in order to carry off being named Faustina you have to be either an epic Goth or Zsa Zsa Gabor.)
For any given piece of music, I seem to encounter Sarah Connolly’s performance of it only after I have someone else’s in my head, and I end up comparing the two whether I want to or not. I’m going to see if I can avoid it here. Not because any comparison I can think of would be unflattering to Connolly (it wouldn’t) but because that kind of thing can get annoying after a while.
This is one of those recital recordings that ends far too soon. When I had heard the first half of it, my thought was that the parts I was enjoying the most were the selections I hadn’t heard before, e.g. the orchestral “arrival of the queen of Sheba” from Solomon (with some very sprightly woodwind interludes from The Symphony of Harmony and Invention) or “will the sun forget to streak” which sounds like it ought to be the ultimate operatic fraternity party anthem but is actually nice in a different, not-going-to-get-the-ensemble-arrested-for-public-indecency way; Connolly’s performance of it is one to lost in. Maybe it’s because the text is in English and thus I hear it differently than I would if it were Italian, but Handel’s setting of the words and Connolly’s take on how the lines should go seemed to mesh with one another and the orchestral parts perfectly – it’s one of those performances that is hard to take apart. (I find I have that reaction to her singing quite often. It resists my urge to take it to pieces, and just remains there being beautiful. I don’t mind. Puzzling, though.)
Not that I wasn’t enjoying the things that I had heard many times before – by the A section repeat of the first track, “sta nell’ircana” from Alcina, I was completely on board. But the developing sense I mentioned of particularly liking the things that were less familiar was overturned decisively by Connolly’s rendition of “scherza infida.” The tempo is slow, but both singer and ensemble know exactly what to do with the long phrases – you can hear every detail of the lute part for example (there’s a bit right at I think the transition to one of the later repeats that’s fantastic) and Connolly does some amazing things with dynamic contrast in the second half. I wish there was a recording of her singing the whole role.
I caught a bit of a Sarah Connolly bug at Carnegie Hall on Sunday:
And I had a lot of time to consider my options, purchases-wise, because I was stuck overnight in Atlanta. In the airport. Apparently I don’t rate a hotel voucher. Though I have to say, I slept well – the seats there don’t have arm-rests, and a Delta employee went rogue and handed out blankets. I also got a free toiletry kit. But it was a dude toiletry kit – razors and shaving cream are of no use to me in an overnight-stranded sort of situation, and I would have appreciated some face-cleaner. (Anyone want a size X-Large men’s t-shirt that says “Delta Sky Team”? Because I have one.) However. It’s over now.
And I got to play a fun game of Spot the Debris on the way home! (There is a lot of road debris around here for some reason. Most of it of the formerly alive variety.) I was driving southeast, and on the opposite side of the freeway, I saw a large cardboard box blocking one lane. Like a big shipping container type cardboard box. It shuddered in the wind when the semis went by. I was thinking about stopping and calling whatever the non-emergency version of 911 is, because it seemed kind of dangerous, but then I saw a state patrol car zip by going the other way, and my sense was that whether he or she knew about it in advance or not, that cop was going to find that box. So I went back to listening to Vivaldi’s Bajazet with a clear conscience.
It turns out that Super Bowl Sunday is actually a really good day to go to an afternoon performance at Carnegie Hall. When the concert lets out the streets are clear and many of the restaurants are not at all crowded; we were almost the only people on the train back out to Long Island. And none of the other passengers puked on the way! And here I was worried that the game would louse things up somehow. Having experienced the Long Island Rail Road Late Nite Post Party Local (stopping at: Puketon, Little Leering, Loud Dudes, Shrieking, Puketon Again and points east – the first four cars will NOT PLATFORM at Puketon) in the past, this felt like, as they said in the eighteenth century, Heav’n, and one didn’t even have to be killed by the Romans to ride the train.
After I mentioned “bella sorge la speranza” yesterday, Thadieu kindly sent me a performance of the opera it’s from, Arianna in Creta HWV 32. (It’s a radio broadcast from London in 2009, with the Academy of Ancient Music; she wrote about it here.)
The aria is part of the final scene of the opera. Here’s a short clip from that performance, with Miah Persson as Arianna and Kristina Hammarström as Teseo. They sing a duet, “mira adesso questo seno,” there’s a brief section of recitative and then Teseo has the “bella sorge” aria and then the aria is recapped as a chorus at the end.
Warning: it WILL get stuck in your head. Do not fight the Handel.
(Previous section here.)
A point of gratuitous textual background. Handel’s librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym* based his text on an earlier version of the drama by Giacomo Francesco Bussani; Haym cut several roles and removed some sequences that were (I quote the booklet) “in doubtful taste.” Apparently in the original Sesto disguised himself as his own mother in order to sneak up on Tolomeo and catch him unawares; Cornelia also had – the booklet doesn’t explain why, but I suppose we can all come up with something – to dress up as a eunuch for a while. On balance, I think Haym’s judgment was probably sound.
Giulio Cesare can turn out quite the taco party by operatic standards, especially if you cast an alto as Nireno, as this recording does. I wonder if anyone has ever gone the whole way and had a female Tolomeo too? Might be interesting. Out of eight vocal roles, only two, Achilla and Curio, pretty much have to be sung by men. Though the convention of the countertenor Tolomeo really is fine by me – nothing wrong with a little variety in timbre, and there are certainly plenty of good countertenors out there in the world.
You know how sometimes there’s been a really awesome party going on for like, years, and you don’t find out about it because you’re a doofus? And then you find out about it and it’s ok and you’re allowed to join and all is well?
Well, I felt a bit like that recently. I stumbled on soprano Roberta Invernizzi completely by accident while looking for — of all things! – Gluck’s version of La Clemenza di Tito. I am quickly becoming a fan. Here she is singing “da tempeste” from Giulio Cesare: