|Stradella's "Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo" --Salon/Sanctuary Concerts (photo by Stephen de las Heras)
Guest review by Chris Petitt:
Alessandro Stradella, a Caravaggio-esque figure and notorious bad boy who died young-ish at the hands of a romantic rival, knew a thing or two about how to set a text and wake up an audience to the dramatic potential in many a sacred story. He thrived in the 17th-century and is now enjoying somewhat of a Renaissance, with New York performances by Opera Lafayette, the Academy of Sacred Drama, and Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, the Americans joining a veritable Stradella-mania among a panoply of Italian baroque groups.
Lucky for us that we can now hear so much of his wonderful music, oratorios dramatizing bible stories and lives of other sacred characters, in which the challenges for the performer include virtuoso singing, nuanced acting, and musical chops which enable one to traverse compositional adventures that at times appear to defy logic.
On Wednesday, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, an intrepid organization never wont to shy away from either an ambitious or adventurous program, offered up the 1673 work Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo, a setting of the story of the Jewish holiday Purim, in which Queen Ester of the Persian Empire uses intelligence, persuasion and reason to head off the genocidal plot of Hamman (Aman in the Italian version) to eradicate the Jewish people. The mid-19th-century Brotherhood Synagogue provided an ideal setting, its central bima creating a ready made stage set for the drama.
The choice of this work is timely, and not just because are we headed into the Purim holiday which celebrates Ester’s victory. A story about a clever woman who outsmarts an oppressive bully whose overcompensation issues result in the suffering of a whole ethnic group resonates all too keenly with most Americans today. But before we make any glib Nancy Pelosi/Donald Trump references, let us remember that Ester was a heroine because, unlike bold modern women today, she was constrained to function within the narrow confines of what was a woman’s place, in both the original story’s setting of the Persian empire and the Counter-Reformation Rome of the libretto.
Far from demanding her people’s emancipation, she has to skirt the issue, finding ways to impress her point upon her husband the King without winding up like her predecessor Vashti, imprisoned in a harem for refusing to obey his command (which involved appearing naked at a banquet, but I digress).
This limited space of action creates a compelling character, to say nothing of the music, and soprano Jessica Gould, who is also the Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts and the engine behind this fine organization’s compelling programming, navigated the role skillfully. Showing a clear transition from Ester’s anxiety to certitude under the nudging of her cousin Mardocheo, sung with beautiful, unaffected tone and clear intention by countertenor José Lemos, Gould’s powerful voice embraces both coloratura filigree and weighty lyrical passages with ease, while a dramatic fire, fine Italian diction, and command of the text makes this role her own.
Gould’s is a dramatic instrument with an impressive facility and distinctive color, dark and rich in the depths and brilliant above. She may not match a certain “Early Music” sound that many have in their heads, but it is a voice you remember, reminding us that the depth of passion inherent in these texts must not fall victim to the fussy preoccupations with “authenticity” that doom many a period performance to forgettable homogeneity.
I am delighted to report that full-blooded vocalism and judicious dramatic choices animated the other principal characters as well, imbuing this age-old story with the kind of life a modern audience needs to keep these works alive.
In the role of Speranza Celeste, an added-on metaphorical figure absent from the original bible story, soprano Sarah Pillow was an ideal foil to Gould, offering a silvery crystalline timbre to the other soprano’s darker palette, the two illustrating a sonic divide between earth and heaven. Wafting through her scenes with the conviction of the righteous, she managed to be convincing rather than supercilious, her delicate phrasing and translucent color a cool and welcome breeze. In the Act I finale duet with Aman (Haman) her diaphanous sound balanced the swaggering bass-baritone of Ian Pomerantz.
Pomerantz clearly relished the outrageous evilness of his character, lurking and mugging through his role with great enthusiasm. A large instrument with a lot of potential, his burly approach resulted at times in less than clean runs and what seemed like some indecision about ornamentation (I recall being surprised by cadential trill of distinctly French provenance at one point). Judging from the audience reaction around me, his performance was a crowd pleaser, and even if his instrument spilled over the edge of stylistic precision for much of the evening, (and the evening does belong to Aman with his miles of arias), it fit the arrogance of this bullying character, one of the Old Testament’s biggest bad guys.
Like the finely crafted performance of José Lemos in regrettably too small a role, the magnificent Jonathan Woody in the role of Assuero the King doesn’t make an appearance until the second act. But what an appearance it is. With a minimum of fuss this gifted young bass-baritone spins out a warm and glorious velvety sound anchored by steel in its lowest range. His economy of action created a nobility of both character and timbre that contrasted Aman’s bluster. It is a sound that speaks of both technique and wisdom beyond this young singer’s years, and which provided a moral anchor as all is set right by a wise king who accepts counsel from others.
In the smaller roles Dominic Inferrera was poised and appealing as Testo (the narrator). Amanda Sidebottom and Martha Sullivan as two Hebrew women sang a lovely duet occasionally marred by intonation lapses. This carried over into the choruses that the two sopranos helmed. The alto Wendy Gilles, and lutenist Grant Herreid, doing double duty on the tenor line, joined bass-baritone Inferrera as the strong links in the vocal ensemble. Herreid played a stylish lute continuo, joining veteran theorbist Daniel Swenberg, gambist Loren Ludwig and harpsichordist Elliot Figg in the tight and responsive continuo group.
I looked in vain for a stage director credit and found none, so it seems that the decision to move about the stage, or bima, as the case is here, was that of the singers, who presumably directed themselves. Books in hand, they created some very effective visuals that belied what must have been a brief rehearsal process. There was an unaffected freshness to the ease with which they moved, welcome in the face of so many “concept” productions, suffocated by overzealous directors with lots to do but nothing to say (my readers know this is a pet peeve of mine). Standard concert wear did the job of indicating character as well, with Queen Ester in a royal purple gown, Speranza Celeste in a dress of luminous and heavenly blue velvet, and the gentlemen in a color scheme of ties to indicate court (magenta), monarch (gold), or bad guy (silver).
(c) meche kroop