Cher Public

Garden party

Many large opera companies these days host valuable young artist programs dedicated to helping singers negotiate the difficult transition between leaving the conservatory and becoming full-time performing artists. Yet few independent organizations have the resources to do the same; however, the French Early Music ensemble Les Arts Florissants has since 2002 been regularly convening an acclaimed “baroque academy,” and the laureates of its seventh edition arrived at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday with an enchanting entertainment called “In an Italian Garden.”  

William Christie, director and founder of Les Arts Florissants, decided that younger singers needed the sort of intensive coaching and performing experience in 17th and 18th century music that his group could provide, so every two years worldwide auditions result in 6-10 performers being selected to participate. An extensive world tour of concerts is the result and, except for the first edition, each subsequent group has performed in New York. A fascinating documentary was made about the 2007 crew, and two CD recordings have also resulted, the latest based on the 2013 tour.

I have attended all but one of the New York concerts, and they have inevitably presented an entertaining mélange of promise and achievement. There have been years when some of the singers are clearly more accomplished than others or the musical selections have been a confusingly eclectic mix. However, the recent Rameau program was pleasingly assembled, and Thursday’s “Italian Garden,” staged by Paul Agnew and Sophie Daneman, produced the most consistently satisfying experience yet by Le Jardin des Voix.

The six singers were beautifully complementary—no one overshadowing the others. This resulted in an unusually mellifluous blend in the late 16th-early 17th madrigals by Banchieri, Vecchi and de Wert which dotted the first half. Yet each performer had his or her moment to shine: the Spanish soprano Lucia Martin-Cantón brought a small, glittering soprano to Handel’s aching “Lascia la spina,” the earlier version of the more famous “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo.  French mezzo Lea Desandre spat out a scintillating “Gelosia” full of fiery coloratura, while another Vivaldi aria, from Il Tigrane, provided Nicholas Scott with an opportunity to reveal a pleasantly plangent tenor.

Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli and baritone Renato Dolcini both went mad as Orlando, the former in a strikingly mature stab at Handel’s astonishing version and Dolcini in a febrile reading of Vivaldi’s more histrionic scena. The arrestingly tall and thin American bass John Taylor Ward was less impressive in his solo by Stradella in the first half but later dazzled in a witty comic duet with Desandre by Domenico Sarro.

In addition to the Sarro, the second half ventured into some lively early opera buffa including attractive excerpts from Haydn’s unknown La Canterina and a bubbly quartet from L’Impresario in augustie by Cimarosa—why do we not hear more by this delightful composer? All of these selections, as well as several of the earlier numbers, revolved around the vicissitudes of the lives of performers lending an enjoyably meta- feeling to the evening.

Christie and his superb orchestra were clearly having a wonderful time while providing sumptuous support to their enthusiastic six soloists who capped the evening with a startling foray into the 19th century—a beguiling encore of the Act II sextet from Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

Tuesday’s concert by The American Classical Orchestra under its conductor Thomas Crawford at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin (AKA “Smoky Mary’s”) also served its audience a wide range of music although it may have proved a surfeit of riches. The evening opened with the orchestra’s excellent chorus joining in a rare gem: one of the Chandos Anthems, Handel’s earliest English church music.

Lianne Coble and Lawrence Jones were the appealing soloists but unfortunately St. Mary’s very reverberant acoustic caused much of the detail of the thrilling choruses to be lost. Happily, all eleven of the Anthems can still be relished via Harry Christophers’s essential recordings of more than two decades ago—on the Chandos label, of course!

I would happily have enjoyed several more Anthems but instead we got a very polished John Thiessen in a Torelli trumpet concerto followed, surprisingly, by Allegri’s serenely beautiful masterpiece, the Miserere (unfortunately misspelled in the program). Alternating chants and verses, ten members of the chorus sang from in front of the altar while four performed from the choir loft above and behind the audience. The effect was magical if somewhat mystifying: what was this sublime example of Renaissance polyphony doing on a program of high baroque?

After intermission came the evening’s raison d’être, the likely New York (and possible US) premiere—although it was not announced as either—of the haunting Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo by Antonio Caldara featuring the superb Czech soprano Hana Blazíková. This oratorio presumably written for Venice around the turn of the 18th century depicts the struggle for the soul of the repentant sinner Mary Magdalene.

In alternating arias, Amor Terreno (Earthly Love) and Amor Celeste (Heavenly Love) offer combative commentaries on Maddalena’s decision to foreswear sin and devote herself to Christ. She remains resolute and is ultimately transformed from a “slave of Cupid” into one of the early Christianity’s most poignant converts.

Crawford writes movingly in the program of his discovery of Caldara’s piece and his search for the elusive, unpublished score. It was surprising that the conductor chose to place Maddalena on the second half of a program when it’s a long work—both the René Jacobs recordings of twenty years ago and a more recent broadcast conducted by Ottavio Dantone last more than two hours. Crawford’s edition ended up being nearly 100 minutes which challenged the large audience who had already been sitting in torturous pews for the Handel-Torelli-Allegri portion. No doubt these stamina-challenging factors contributed to a number of defections that dotted the final third of the Caldara.

To bring the work to a (relatively) manageable length, Crawford cut some arias entirely and reduced several of the many da capo arias to only their A sections. His most inscrutable decision was to omit the final ritornello of a half-dozen arias: a shocking—and, in my long experience, unprecedented–disfigurement which saved–at most—only a few minutes. Given that Crawford had written that “for me, I think that the most distinguishing feature of the Caldara arias is their SHAPE [his caps],” this was doubly baffling.

The small band of strings (with a bassoon added to the continuo) mostly coped well with Caldara’s evocative, colorful writing, although the musicians were clearly tested by the piece’s length and having no opportunity to re-tune. However, Maxine Neuman was particularly eloquent in the many arias which featured a cello obbligato.

Five young local singers who had also been part of the chorus in the concert’s first half bravely tackled supporting roles but all were challenged by the difficult acoustic. Usually a bright and effective performer, Marcy Richardson failed to make her usual impact as Marta while baritone Christopher Doyle Herbert hectored effectively as the Fariseo even if his coloratura became labored. Martin Coyle’s bright tenor did occasionally break through the sonic blur in the small role of Cristo.

Although Solange Merdinian and Abigail Fischer valiantly wrestled in the delicious battle between Amor Terreno and Amor Celeste respectively, both were too preoccupied with the difficult vocal writing to make much of a dramatic impact. Terreno, in particular, proved too low for Merdinian to comfortably negotiate her florid rage arias like “Orribili, terribili” and “Voi del Tartaro antri orrendi.” But both mezzos effectively dressed her part: “Earth” in a low-cut purple frock, “Heaven” in one modestly long-sleeved and white.

Luckily, Crawford sought out and invited Blazíková to sing Maddalena, and her participation alone made the long evening immensely rewarding. She had previously appeared in New York singing Bach with visiting orchestras under high-profile conductors as Philippe Herreweghe and Maasaki Suzuki, with whom she has made many cantata recordings. Although I missed those earlier appearances, I suspect it’s difficult to radiate much diva allure in the B-Minor Mass. However, from her very first recitative as Maddalena, it was clear that this was an artist of the first rank.

Through superior projection and focus, she alone conquered the difficult acoustic with her committed, commanding singing. Having never her heard her in person before Tuesday’s concert, I was shocked by the rich fullness of the voice. On recordings including her recent very impressive collection of early 18th century opera arias “Vienna-1709,” she often sounds like the kind of Early Music soprano that many love to hate with an excessively white, even boyish voice used with an arid lack of vibrato and an irritating blankness of expression.

I have a video of a complete Maddalena in which Blazíková performed several years ago in her native Czech Republic and it demonstrates many of the unhappy qualities I had associated with her singing (along with some very odd hand gestures).

However, on Tuesday night, she was transformed, singing strongly but purely and touchingly conveying Maddalena’s sometimes rocky spiritual journey. I can find no evidence that Blažíková has ever sung opera, either on stage or on recordings, but I suspect she could be quite effective in the right work, particularly one from the 17th century.

Thanks to Blazíková’s superlative Maddalena, Caldara’s oratorio made its mark, but it’s not an easy work—it suffers from a dark sameness of mood, particularly when the conflict between the two Amors was as muted as it was. His music here lacks the vivid contrasts of, for example, Handel’s similar Le Resurrezione written several years later which also features Maddalena.

While Crawford wonders in his notes at the scarcity of performances of Caldara, he is likely referring only to the US where the composer’s many vocal works, both secular and sacred, are by and large ignored. But lately there has been a lot of Caldara done in Europe, and a number of noteworthy recordings have been released in the past year, including Morte e Sepoltura di Christo conducted by Fabio Biondi which was just issued a few weeks ago.

The most recommendable is Andrea Marcon’s spectacularly good live recording on Archiv of the full-length serenata La Concordia de pianeti featuring a spiffy line-up of seven soloists including Franco Fagioli, Ruxandra Donose, Delphine Galou and Luca Tittoto.

The marvelous American soprano Robin Johannsen who specializes in baroque music in Europe—she stars as Emma in the modern premiere of Telemann’s Emma und Eginhard at the Berlin Staatsoper Sunday night—released In Dolce Amore, a sparkling all-Caldara CD last year on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. In fact, that same label’s magnificent Semiramide anthology opens with a Caldara sinfonia and aria.

A number of Jardin des Voix have gone on to important careers particularly in baroque opera and when Les Arts Florissants again visits the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April 2016 with the Robert Carsen-directed production of Campra’s Les Fêtes Vénitiennes most of the leading roles will be taken by Jardin vets. But first Les Arts returns to Lincoln Center in October with Handel’s Theodora featuring rare US appearances by Stéphanie d’Oustrac and Philippe Jaroussky.

The period-instrument American Classical Orchestra continues to program an interesting combination of standard repertoire and rarely heard works, and next season promises both Telemann’s oratorio Der Tag des Gerichts and Haydn’s opera L’Isola Disabitata (also unfortunately misspelled in Tuesday’s program!).

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