We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


Anthony Ross Costanzo and Anne Sofie von Otter onstage at Alice Tully Hall

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra presented an unusual program last night that offered delights, both expected and unexpected. Let us begin with the expected delights. Hearing countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo singing Händel was the main reason we decided to review this evening and he did not disappoint.

Mr. Costanzo's selections served to show off the many special qualities of his instrument and the artistry with which he employs it. In "Inumano fratel ... Stille amare" from Händel's Tolomeo, he began as a victim complaining about how he has suffered at the hands of Fate. When he sang of his beloved, his color warmed and softened, and toward the end, as the poison (actually just a sleeping potion) took effect one could hear the grief and acceptance creep into his voice, accompanied by sobbing strings. We were also impressed by his strength at the lower end of the register.

For vocal fireworks we had to wait for "Vivi tiranno!" from Rodelinda, in which the wild flights of melismatic singing were employed to express Bertando's passion. (Apparently, the aria had the desired effect on Grimoaldo who relents and restores Bertando to the throne.) It was a landmark performance, doing credit to this artist whom we have thrilled to since his student days.

Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter is known to us mainly in her role as Octavian in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, one of our favorite operas. We were very much looking forward to hearing her last night and for the most part we enjoyed her performance but we were disappointed in her use of the loathed music stand. We can understand its use in modern works and in ensemble singing but not for the Händel arias.

We admit that her dramatic skills almost overcame the handicap but it did interfere with her connection with the audience, giving us the chance to focus on the superb oboe solo of Marc Schachman in "Will the sun forget to streak" from Handel's Solomon. (If Handel decided to use an English libretto, we can decide to omit the diacritical marks, LOL.)

We enjoyed "Iris, hence away"--Juno's aria of revenge upon the unfortunate title character of Semele. Ms. von Otter invested the performance with plenty of drama in the florid melismatic passages and brought the aria to a powerful ending. 

The two singers sang a charming love duet from Solomon, one with intertwining vocal lines and a playful aspect. Speaking of playful, there was a lagniappe not on the program which both tickled us and also made us a bit uncomfortable.  Let us explain. Ms. von Otter is a head taller than the diminutive Mr. Costanzo. In the duet "My dearest, my fairest" from Purcell's . Pausanias, the pair played it for laughs in a way that might have diminished Mr. Costanzo were he not so secure. It just reminded us of how awkward we have felt on dates with men who were "vertically challenged", as they say.

Readers will be happy to know that we kept an open mind to the contemporary music on the program and were rewarded by aural pleasures.  Arvo Pärt's Summa was composed in 1977 and revised in 1991 for this combination of voices and string orchestra. Thankfully, it was tonal and not terribly challenging. There was a repetitive motif running through the short work. 

Our two vocal artists were well matched by a solo violin and viola in Pärt's  1984 "Es sang vor langen Jahren", which opened with a lovely string tremolo. The text was by Romantic poet Clemens Brentano.

We also liked two related pieces by Caroline Shaw which confirmed our opinion that singers excel in writing for the voice. We heard the world premiere of "And So" which was related to a work from three years ago called "Red, Red Rose" with a text by Robert Burns--a text which scanned and rhymed--two qualities which we feel tend to inspire melodic music. 

Ms. von Otter limned the pretty little turns in the vocal line and floated some exquisite high notes. The Burns work had the quality of a folk song with repeated verses.

We have yet to mention the instrumental pieces on the program, which opened with the Overture to Partenope by Händel. Maestro Nicolas McGegan has a modest appearance on the podium, without theatrics, but pulled together a consistently excellent performance from his mostly string orchestra which also includes a pair of Baroque oboes, a bassoon, a theorbo, and a harpsichord. During the Shaw we were sure we heard a celeste but could not see one!

The major instrumental work on the program was Händel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, of which we preferred the graceful Minuet and the spirited Gavotte.

The program closed with a Suite from Purcell's The Fairy Queen in which the theorbist occasionally swapped his theorbo for a Baroque guitar.

What an interesting concept it was to combine Baroque music and Modern music on the same program--all played by a Baroque ensemble!

(c) meche kroop

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