Cher Public

I love you to death

Cornetto fancier Pluhar.

New York fans of 17th century Italian vocal music should be rejoicing this month. Lincoln Center will present all three of Monteverdi’s operas beginning on the 18th, but last Thursday presented a tough choice. William Christie conducted Juilliard 415 in tasty morsels by Monteverdi, but instead I opted for the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble doing Agostino Steffani’s duetti da camera

Then Friday evening at Zankel Hall L’Arpeggiata offered a compendium of Luigi Rossi’s music; both were satisfying evenings, rare opportunities to experience live the works of two important yet little known masters.

While Monteverdi then Cavalli dominated the musical scene of Venice, Rossi’s stronghold was Rome. Although he wrote just two operas, his strikingly dramatic vocal music, both sacred and secular, has been increasingly revived and recorded over the past few decades. Theorbist Christina Pluhar, director of L’Argeggiata, conceived a roughly 90-minute program “La Lyra d’Orfeo” which alternated solo scenes from the operas Il Palazzo incantato and Orfeo with a number of Rossi’s more informal canzonettas.

The origin of the evening’s most striking piece, a complicated monologue (its text covered two entire pages of the program!) Lamento d’Arione wasn’t specified.

Consisting of eleven other instrumentalists and two singers on this occasion, Pluhar’s group has gained notoriety for its “jazzy” interpretations with funky added percussion of 17th and 18th century music but Thursday’s program mostly played it straight other than in a rollicking rendition of an infectious instrumental ciacona by Cazzati.

What I continue to find most off-putting about Pluhar’s performances as I had several years ago at an all-Cavalli evening is her over-use of a cornetto in her exceptionally rich realization of the accompaniment. A quick scan of a half-dozen Rossi recordings in my library found that cornetti were only used in one and then sparingly. The most grievous instance occurred during the evening’s sole duet where the prominent cornetto nearly drowned out the singers.

Statuesque Belgian Céline Scheen revealed an interestingly complex soprano with a bright, tight vibrato. Her intently dramatic approach contrasted markedly with mezzo Giuseppina Bridelli’s more subdued manner. Scheen’s bottled-up vocal production perhaps contributed to her indistinct diction, a real drawback given text-driven nature of Rossi’s pieces.

Bridelli’s darker, warmer voice combined with her much clearer words proved more appealing, and her earnest intensity made the shifting moods and striking musical contrasts of the long Lamento d’Arione the highlight of the program.

Throughout the evening it was hard not to compare Rossi’s work with Monteverdi’s later music; so I wasn’t entirely surprised when the sole encore proved to be a ravishing rendition of the final duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppea which however probably isn’t even by Monteverdi.

During the short talk before Thursday’s Steffani concert, I was reminded by Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette that the first performance I ever heard by the Boston Early Music Festival was a production of Rossi’s Orfeo at Tanglewood twenty years ago. Stubbs and the evening’s eloquent gambist Erin Headley also make up two-thirds of Tragicomedia whose spellbinding recording on Teldec of Rossi duets and trios called “Le Canterine Romane” (sadly out of print) is one of my very favorite CDs ever.  But Stubbs and company have turned their attentions to Steffani, a late seventeenth-century master whose career centered mostly in Germany.

Despite the impression given during that talk by Stubbs & O’Dette, interest in Steffani dates back decades to the dogged efforts of American conductor Newell Jenkins who performed five of the composer’s operas in the 1970s and 80s. As a matter of fact I attended what turned out to be Jenkins’s final Steffani exhumation, 1692’s Le Rivali Concordi at Alice Tully Hall in 1987.

While the 2011 BEMF staging of Niobe, Regina di Tebe, later recorded by Erato, did garner attention, Covent Garden had revived the opera a year earlier while Cecilia Bartoli’s 2012 Mission CD (the one with the bald-pated mezzo glowering and holding up a crucifix) probably did the most in generating recent attention to Steffani, who with Alessandro Scarlatti is a crucial transitional figure in the evolution of Italian opera from its mid-17th century explosion via Rossi, Cavalli and Cesti to its early 18th century peak exemplified by Handel who by the way borrowed liberally from Steffani.

Nor are the duetti da camera featured on Thursday’s concert and the group’s new CD (as yet unheard by me) exactly obscure. I first heard a number of them on Alan Curtis’s superb collection more than thirty years ago, and Attilio Cremonesi’s group with Rossana Bertini and Claudio Cavina remains a favorite. More recently, the collection “Se Con Stille Frequenti” featuring Sara Mingardo and various female partners inevitably contains three Steffani duets.

Yet these marvelous, influential works certainly merit BEMFCE’s attention.

These duets may not conform to conventional expectations; they do not feature a pair of “characters” bantering back and forth. There is no dialogue; rather a poetic text, divided into strophes, expounds on a precise situation involving the heights or depths of love. Most often the two voices echo each other often in wildly florid flights but occasionally one singer will have a verse to herself which is then followed by one by the other; they then reunite for the conclusion. Few works subscribe to a conventional da capo form.

The concert and its companion CD, dubbed “Duets of Love and Passion” (are there any other kind?), feature three voice combinations: soprano-soprano, soprano-tenor and soprano-bass. Accompanied by BEMFCE’s superb continuo group including Stubbs, O’Dette, Headley and Maxine Eilander and Michael Sponseller, the four soloists excelled in extravagant, alluring vocal writing.

Boston’s long-time early music diva Amanda Forsythe glittered throughout, her sweet high soprano easily negotiating the challenging intricacies of her music. I last heard Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth six years ago as a callow Sesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. She has since matured into an extraordinarily accomplished performer, her lush ebony-tinged soprano contrasted entrancingly with Forsythe’s in the spellbindingly lovely “Su, ferisci, alato arciero” which ended the evening’s first half.

If a less vivacious and communicative artist than Forsythe, she made clear why she’s become many baroque conductors’s soprano of choice: she recorded the title role in Stradella’s La Doriclea just last month.

If their coloratura was less easy than the ladies’s, Colin Balzer and Christian Immler were stylish collaborators. Balzer’s burnished sweet tenor happily sports a solid and mellow middle register while Immler’s pungent high bass provided an enjoyably earthy contrast to both his angelic partners.

Although each concert had its lighter moments, both surprisingly ended on notes of mortality. The conclusion of an aria from Rossi’s Orfeo pleads “A morire, a morire” (Let’s die, let’s die), while the next-to-last verse of Steffani’s “Fulminate, saettate” culminates in the self-lacerating

Sia pur rigida la sorte
Ch’a penar mi condannó
Che ben merita la morte
Chi la vita ricusò.

Let the fate indeed be severe
Which thus condemned me to suffer
He deserves death
Who refuses life.

BEMF’s continues its commitment to Steffani with a staging of his Orlando generoso starring Forsythe as Angelica recently announced as the opera centerpiece of its 2019 Festival,

For anyone wanting to explore these two wonderful composers, a DVD has just been released of Rossi’s Orfeo, and while the superb Les Arts Florissants recording of Orfeo is out of print on CD, the mp3 is still available for download.

The stunning “Le Canterine romane’ mentioned earlier is unfortunately out of print but used copies are likely available. Surprisingly Bartoli’s collection of Steffani opera arias is no longer available but the Curtis and Cremonesi duet collections are still available, as does a lovely collection of Steffani cantatas and duets with Monique Zanetti and Pascal Bertin.

As for Steffani’s operas, those wanting to preview BEMF’s upcoming Orlando generoso may do so, while BEMF’s recording of Niobe  remains clearly preferable to Covent Garden’s.

  • Camille

    They mostly did NOT play it straight on Saturday night, however———
    and had I known or bothered to have researched or even paid for my ticket, I’d have been hacked off about having this shoved down my craw. As it was, it was only to hear some Cesti, and was glad of that, but dd not care as much about the music as a result as much as I might have. The one exception would be the scena from Cavalli’s Giasone, which was quite striking and delivered in a reasonably serious and authentic manner. The abysmal diction, or lack thereof, of the other singer (Purcell or Monteverdi--it all sounded the same) who looked as if she had a nightclub in Montmartre gig she’d mistaken this for, plus the dramatic affect she put on rendered all to nonsense. The “alto” song stylings of the ballerinO were nearly all inaudible.

    Is this a new trend in presenting seicento and settecento music--making it “KEWL”?
    I know that the Gardiner L’Orfeo last year at Carnegie was annoyingly twee.

    When compared to the Venetian jamboree in Carnegie Hall (Stern) earlier this year—the Juditha Triumphans and the Poppea, which were quite authentic as one could hope for—these were pale reflections of what might have been. It doesn’t have to be historical recreation but does it have to be DUMBED DOWN and pander to the public so?

    And WHEN will “Pur ti miro” cease being attributed to Monteverdi but rightfully be noted in programmes as Signor Whathisnname, whatever it is I cannot remember at the moment whom it was finally thought to be its true author ??

    Old Lady Rant OVER and thank you.

    • Who was “the other singer”? Your description sounds like Simone Kermes.

      • Camille

        If ONLY.

        She’s a lot of fun, at least. This other singer should have been singing

        When is your Don Carlos?

        • Next week.

          • Camille

            Today I received an e-mail from MoMA and wanted to pass on this news to you: that MoMA is having their first ever exhibition in Paris at the Fondation Louis Vuitton and it starts tomorrow, 11 October (actually, that’s today for you!). If I were there I could get us in gratis!! Pitié!

            It is called “Être moderne: Le MoMA à Paris”. It runs through the first few days of March 2018 and features 140 works from the collection—-lots of late 19th c. stuff. See:

            Hope you make it and so wish I could be there to get our free tickets!

            • Would you believe I’ve still only seen the place from the outside? It attracts such crowds, I’ve never been inside. Crowded exhibitions are a pain. So I miss the blockbusters wherever they are, and missed the recent African show I’d really have liked to see at LV.

              I’m thinking of going to the FIAC this year, though. In recent years its reputation has shot up, and Balice Hartling, a Paris gallery, are showing an artist I like a lot and have a piece by. In this case I have an “invité d’honneur” card so I can slip in through a back door, I believe.

              Thanks for thinking of me!

            • Camille

              Pas de cela! I’ll go nose around and see if I can get a ticket from here--which I truly doubt--and forward to you. It’s worth a try.

              FIAC? Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça??

            • Oh, getting a ticket is no problem, please don’t bother. I can do that here online. The question is how to go there at a time when it’s relatively quiet: I have a job during the week, in theory! But you know, I’ve been to MOMA quite often. I imagine I’ve seen the works before, unlike the ones I discovered in Tehran in April, which had all been hidden away in the basement for years.

              It will be interesting, though, to see if the MOMA’s works give off a smell of food. I find the smell of it very noticeable there and suppose it must penetrate the canvases.

              FIAC is Paris’s contemporary art fair.

  • Kenneth Conway

    The BEMF concert at the Morgan was indeed marvelous … as is this illuminating review (of that concert and more) attests. I stumbled upon Amanda Forsythe on YouTube by accident and was entranced by what I heard coming out of my tinny laptop speakers. In the house she was, yes, “glittering.” Gorgeous voice. Baráth was also superb. The male singers and the “band” were also excellent. Well, more than excellent. Thank you so much for this excellent piece of music criticism.

  • So you would agree: just one:

  • Daniel Swick

    Amanda Forsythe is a treasurable singer. It’s a really lovely sound and she’s exceptionally musical.

    • fletcher

      Forsythe is singing Mendelssohn in the full Midsummer Night’s Dream at LA Phil next month -- this clip (& this review) does a lot to recommend her!

    • Kenneth Conway

      Hear, hear! … as in, I would love to hear more of Forsythe live.