Belief in a higher power
The behavioral phenomenon of limerence has been described as “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation.” As I was listening to two superb CDs for review, it occurred to me that limerence closely mirrors the complex relationship between opera fans and the singers—often divas–they worship.
Given the over-the-top actions taken by some opera devotees, it’s easy to remember that fan has its roots in fanaticism. How else to explain waiting on line for four days to snag a standing room ticket for Maria Callas’s return to the Met as Tosca in 1965? And pegging a singer—any singer—as the “limerent object” seems apropos too. Surely, each opening, each recording, each announcement of a new role becomes for a fan that hoped-for “reciprocation”—just as each cancellation stabs as a personal rejection.
But I know I am an unusual breed of fanatic: few of the objects of my “obsessive thoughts” might strike others as typical—Sena Jurinac, Janet Baker, Gundula Janowitz, Julia Varady—well, maybe it’s just something about the letter J? I wonder if many others flew to New York for three years in a row in the late 1980s just to hear Gabriela Benackovà sing Czech opera?
Of my thousands of CDs, only two are with Callas, just a couple by Renata Tebaldi, rather more by Magda Olivero. My only Zinka Milanov is my only La Gioconda, but there’s lots of Kirsten Flagstad and Helen Traubel. The sturm und drang over the latest misbehaviors of Angela Gheorghiu or Anja Harteros doesn’t interest me much; devotion to filth or demented performances has never been my thing. I have no photos of my favorite singers hanging over my sofa, and I’ve never waited outside the Met stage door nor asked a singer for an autograph. On the rare occasions that I’ve met a performer I admire, I usually become nervous, tongue-tied and embarrassed rather than bathing in some borrowed radiance.
But I remain happily eager to discover new obsessions—how sad that so many are consumed only with dead or retired singers. Two new CDs allow me to celebrate one of my fiercest current addictions; I have admitted that I am powerless, but I have no desire for seek recovery. My name is DeCaffarrelli and I’m an Ann Hallenberg-aholic!
In 2002 I was in Berlin attending the Staatsoper unter den Linden Festtage where Daniel Barenboim was conducting all ten of Wagner’s mature operas in chronological order. However, the two-week schedule left some days-off, so I was able to catch a late Eva Marton Elektra at the Deutsche Oper where I also heard a recital by Edita Gruberovà definitively demonstrating she sounds infinitely better live. And as a devout Handelian I was delighted that the Akademie für Alte Musik and the RIAS-Kammerchor were performing Hercules at the Konzerthaus. The enticing cast included Karina Gauvin, James Gilchrist and Alan Ewing and, replacing the originally announced Jean Rigby, a Swedish mezzo I had never heard of.
That fiery Dejanira ignited my enthusiasm—who was this Hallenberg? At that point recordings were few although I did turn up Sartorio’s rare L’Orfeo, a fascinating 1673 work Hallenberg recorded in 1998.
But otherwise it took me a long while to explore my newest “limerent object.” My next experience with La Hallenberg was that heartache, that rejection that we all experience: she canceled on me! In 2004, I was in Paris to hear Vivaldi’s La Fida Ninfa and a slip in the program announced that Anna Maria Panzarella instead would be singing Licori that evening. Only later did I realize that the role was probably too high for Hallenberg and the cancellation was perhaps a good thing, but at the time I despaired. However, her marvelously evil Fernando Cortés in Vivaldi’s Motezuma three years later, also in Paris, helped me heal. And numerous recordings and broadcasts began to flow as well, particularly “Mia Vita, Mio Bene,” a delicious miscellany of rare Italian baroque arias, cantatas and duets with fellow Scandanavian, soprano Ditte Andersen.
What I discovered that cool April night in Berlin was a mezzo who can seemingly do anything—at least in the 18th century repertoire that so fascinates me. Her singing betrays little ego; it’s always about the music and the character, not about self-aggrandizement. I always feel confident that anytime I listen to her it will be wonderful. The metaphors we create for voices can only attempt to mirror how they ring in our own ears. When Hallenberg sings, I imagine rubies or velvet or perhaps moonlight or even chocolate—a voice that can envelop with its warmth or dazzle with its cool bravura. Here is a singer who can move listeners with a hushed intensity
or knock their socks off with coloratura singing which shirks nothing while avoiding the annoying mannerisms that can mar performances by Cecilia Bartoli or Vivica Genaux, her principal baroque “rivals.”
Such is the allure of the voice and artistry that I can be persuaded to listen to her do anything. During a recent hour devoted to Hallenberg on German radio, the announcer played an excerpt from her recent recording of the Alto Rhapsody of Brahms, a composer I usually dislike intensely, but her version won me over! Yet I should confess that I am occasionally “unfaithful”: her recent well-received collection of arias written for Marietta Marcolini, one of Rossini’s earliest muses, left me cold. Much of the non-Rossini music struck me as uninspired, and I’m not convinced 19th century bel canto is really her fach.
With his Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis, who conducted the Paris Motezuma, began to use Hallenberg in many of his Handel projects, an erratic bunch due to his sometimes-on, sometimes-off leadership. However, 2013 saw the release of his latest (possibly final) Handel opera recording, Giove in Argo from Virgin Classics.
Handel concocted several self-pasticcios, operas where he cannibalized his own works to create a “new” piece. Only recently have they come to be occasionally performed and heard on CD. The Juilliard School presented Oreste in 2003 (as a vehicle for Michael Maniaci) and George Petrou recorded it, as he did another, Alessandro Severo.
Often referred to by its English title Jupiter in Argos, Giove had long been ignored because the autograph score lacked several arias and most of the recitatives. However, musicologist John H. Roberts rediscovered the missing arias and put together a critical edition composing the missing recitatives himself. This made the work’s modern premiere possible in 2006 in Bayreuth–at the Markgräfliches Opernhaus. A first recording soon arrived which I have yet to hear.
Giove turns out to be an odd work, composed in a desperate attempt by Handel to keep Italian opera viable in London. By the late 1730s, English audiences had grown tired of opera seria and Handel became increasingly preoccupied with the composition of oratorios which were just then beginning to attract the public’s favor. Choruses which were an important component of oratorios turn up with surprising frequency in Giove, surprising since Handel’s other operas rarely if ever contain choral movements.
For this complicated pastoral comedy featuring Jupiter chasing not one but two reluctant ladies, Isis and Calisto, Handel appropriated several showpieces from Alcina including “Tornami a vagegghiar,” as well as arias from lesser known works like Scipione, Giustino and Il Parnasso in festa. Based on Curtis’s version (recorded in 2010 but held until this year for release), the work is a lightweight caprice, full of appealing arias and sweet choruses, although the choral singing is often under-nourished with the six soloists joined by only four others.
Handel imported to London for its premiere the well-known Italian singer Costanza Posterla (known as “La Posterla”) to sing Iside, along with her daughter who took the part of Diana. Perhaps knowing she’d be competing with the popular Élisabeth Duparc (known as “La Francesina”) as Calisto, Posterla arrived with two arias and an accompanied recitative from Lucio Vero by Francesco Araja which she had likely sung with the composer in St. Petersburg. Handel inserted these into the second and third acts of Giove for her, although they later disappeared from the score. It was their rediscovery by Roberts in 2000 that paved the way for the reappearance of this work, unheard since its initial two-performance run in 1739.
Giove isn’t among Curtis’s most vigorous performances but by and large the smallish orchestra is lively and supports the soloists beautifully. Baritone Johannes Weisser as Licaone (the tyrant of Arcadia, disguised as a shepherd) and bass Vita Priante as Erasto (Osiris, also disguised as a shepherd) are nicely differentiated, and both dispatch their florid music handily with a minimum of the aspiration one so often encounters in lower voices singing Handel. Tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, a Curtis favorite, as Arete (Jove, disguised as…well, you know) tries hard but proves a rather pallid seducer.
Mezzo Theodora Baka does well as Diana but fails to really grab one’s attention which is definitely not a problem with the radiant Calisto of Gauvin who is in splendid voice and gives one of her best recent performances, although her “Tornami a vagegghair” here does not quite have the sparkle as it does on Curtis’s complete Alcina, in which she should have been Alcina rather than Morgana. But her moving “Già sai che l’usignol” demonstrates her particular skill in spinning out Handel’s pathetic arias.
Iside (Isis, in disguise, of course) is the work’s most grateful role and Hallenberg seizes every opportunity. Act 1 closes with the lilting “Nel passer da un laccio all’altro” which she also sang as Tirinto’s “Se potessero I sospri miei” in Imeneo, Handel’s penultimate opera.
When I was first listening to Giove before reading the CD notes, Hallenberg’s dramatic mad scene at the end of Act II immediately jumped out at me: it sounded like something from the Neopolitan school than Handel. And, sure enough, the exciting “Ombra che pallida” is one of the Araja insertions and the recording’s highlight.
The all-Handel CD that all Hallenberg-iacs have been craving for years was finally released recently on Naïve; little did we know just how long we had been waiting as it was recorded in June/July 2010. Just why this special collection “Hidden Handel,” yet another collaboration with Curts and Il Complesso Barocco, took three years to appear remains a mystery.
Rather than a collection of long-familiar chestnuts, it presents 12 arias, nine of which have never been recorded before, along with some rare instrumental pieces. Those nine had probably never even been performed since their premiere, and Roberts’s notes provide fascinating glimpses into the origins of these unknown pieces, many written as alternatives for singers coming into revivals of existing operas.
Three of the best are arias that Handel wrote in 1716 for the famous castrato Antonio Bernacchi for his appearances in London in Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1694 Pirro e Demetrio. While Handel also composed leading roles in Lotario and Partenope for Bernacchi, these arias may be the only time he ever wrote arias to be inserted into another composer’s work. “Hidden Handel” opens with “Sento prima le procelle” a brilliant aria for Demetrio using the familiar simile of being tossed about by the roiling waters of a storm at sea which shows Hallenberg at her most commanding. (Ignore the idiot who gave the CD a three-star review on Amazon because he thought these three arias are actually by Scarlatti!)
One of her great talents is that rare ability to turn the da capo form (ABA’) into something musically interesting and dramatically compelling; her ornamentation of the A’ section in this aria possibly written for a revival of Amadigi is particularly fizzy.
The origin of this and several other arias remains a matter of conjecture by Roberts—some of his arguments are more convincing than others, but the CD concludes with a bewitching scene from Alessandro. When Hallenberg and Curtis went into the studio in 2010, that opera had not been recorded since the early 1980s; however, in the meantime, two complete versions have appeared. Yet her seraphic rendition of Rossane’s “Solitudini amate” (a fascinating piece composed for Faustina Bordoni that alternates accompanied recitative with arioso over a rich orchestral fabric) throws those of Yetzabel Arias Fernández and Julia Lezhneva into the shade.
One of the frustrations of being an Ann-fan in the US is that she hasn’t sung here since her Dejanira in Cavalli’s Ercole Amante at the 1999 Boston Early Music Festival; however, that situation changes this week. Unfortunately her US return on August 1st takes place on the wrong coast for me: under conductor Bernard Labadie and with Gauvin, her frequent collaborator, she sings Pergolesi’s tender Stabat Mater at the most incongruous venue imaginable—the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Perhaps this appearance signals a new trend as there is a second North American engagement later this year with Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal for the Bach Mass in B-minor.
After Los Angeles, she participates in a Haydn oratorio cycle at the Salzburg Festival singing Anna in Il Ritorno di Tobia with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, an unfairly neglected work which she has recorded in a smashing version for Naxos.
For those lucky enough to live in or travel to Europe, several essential Hallenberg events arrive this coming season, particularly the modern premiere of Veracini’s Adriano in Siria in which she she will sing Farinelli’s role of Farnaspe with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante in Krakow in December using an edition prepared by her husband, musicologist Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. Her collaboration with Curtis and his Il Complesso Barocco continues with Handel’s Admeto on the composer’s 329th birthday at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in which she portrays Alceste, Faustina’s greatest Handel role. And Londoners will get a rare chance to hear Hallenberg in her baroque glory when the Farinelli tour arrives at the Wigmore Hall in April 2014.
In addition to starring as Emilia in Catone in Utica in the latest edition of the Naïve-Vivaldi edition due for CD release this fall, my inside information reveals that a new recital has recently been recorded featuring 18th century visions of the evil Roman empress Agrippina—let’s hope there’s not another three-year wait before we’re able to revel in it!
I was attending one of Hallenberg’s celebrated Farinelli concerts with Les Talens Lyriques at Brussels’s Palais des Beaux-Arts in December 2011 with a great friend and fellow Ann-man. He is most enthusiastic about meeting his favorite singers so he insisted we must stay after the concert and greet the triumphant diva. I was hesitant but acquiesced.
Despite signs posted that warned we weren’t supposed to be there, just the two of us waited backstage as the orchestra filed out followed by conductor Christophe Rousset. Eventually, Hallenberg appeared and greeted us, having heard that there were two crazies standing vigil. Despite having just sung a program of ten fiendishly demanding arias, she could not have been nicer—the grace and humanity that suffuses her singing shone in her kindness to these two mere mortals reveling in their moment of requited limerence for one of today’s finest singers.