A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / The Berkshire Review in Boston

A Singer’s Notes 34: Early Listening

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Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione in Agostino Steffani's NIobe. Photo André Costantini.
Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione in Agostino Steffani's NIobe. Photo André Costantini.

Maybe the best thing about the early music movement is the way it has gotten main-stream artists, as they used to be called, to take music written before 1750 seriously. Handel’s operas are now staged across a range that extends from historical reconstruction to the most advanced stagings. Operas that used to be radically cut, rearranged, transposed, or just ignored, are now afforded textual validity and theatrical viability. On the performance side we now have the finest young singers and players involved.

There was a beautiful sense of listening in the two operas given by the Boston Early Music Festival at the Mahaiwe last week. The theater is of reasonable size, the singers clearly audible without any help, and the orchestra sat in a circle. There was much smiling among the players. It was lovely to see joy in the faces of players who had already performed a long opera several times. As usual, the BEMF orchestra nearly stole the show. They play more than phrases; they play whole journeys of rhetoric in one’s imagining. They have a unanimity that really has to be heard to be believed. This time I was sitting on the continuo side, and the sustained effort of Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs and their cohorts, Maxine Eilander, Erin Headley, and Luca Guglielmi, was made of vitality. It was always an act of intense listening. Nothing that happened on the stage was met with anything less than an equal presence from this bunch. The singers, uniformly fine, sang without pushing. Fast notes were clear; slow passages had specificity and pathos. The Anfione, Philippe Jaroussky, delivered the most famous aria in the Festival’s big opera Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, an evocation of the music of the spheres, with an intense blending of his sound with the murmuring strings of the orchestra. Offstage four gambists added to the richness. All through the evening one heard a collection of equals.

Niobe is a long opera. Specific moments in it are very long indeed. Anfione’s death scene went on forever- a display of devices, not a vividly heard event. By contrast the death of Acis in Handel’s Acis and Galatea had a lean economy which left one stunned at the precipitous action. One listened in vain in Steffani’s opera for scenes which moved in a natural way. They lingered. Handel’s sweet opera, for the great house Cannons, made its way swiftly. The Acis and Galatea performance was a kind of depiction of what might have gone on at Cannons on a typical evening. Singers at various times impersonated the illustrious boarders in the house,  Alexander Pope among them. This was not laid on too heavily and went well with the lightness of being that is the opera. The chamber ensemble accompanying the singers was superb—Robert Mealy in particular, responding to every phrase as though he were a principle singer. Douglas Williams’ voice held the attention the minute he started singing (or speaking). It had immediacy. Douglas is a Tanglewood Fellow this summer.

Some have heard the early music movement as a post-modern phenomenon. And so it is. It uses a favorite post-modern technique. It combines. Over the last thirty years it has combined our greatly increased ability to find and dispense information, with our post-modern wish to converse with, even contain another period. In the elegant BEMF productions we don’t have historical slavery,  but something more specific. Something that will eventually be seen as part of our own time—a reviving, a re-living of another period through the use of accurate and exquisite information. And this is a process that is just beginning. One may now enjoy a Handel opera in a version which comes close to the way it sounded one night, and see it staged by the most advanced director the next. This is good.

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