Many American opera-lovers take the “Grand Tour”—a pilgrimage to Europe to attend opera at its great houses—Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera in London or Otello at La Scala in Milan, or perhaps for the more well-heeled a visit to the summer festivals of Glyndebourne, Salzburg or Aix-en-Provence.  

Then there are the more intrepid voyagers famished for challenging regietheater who trek to often less famous houses to experience the work of Peter Konwitschny or Calixto Bieito or Stefan Herheim.  However, for those of us hungry to hear first-rate performances of baroque opera—still a rare hothouse delicacy here in theUS—Europe also remains the place to go.

Cashing in a moldering stack of frequent-flyer miles (and abetted by cheap intra-European airlines like EasyJet) and thanks to the extraordinary generosity of friends who offered me places to stay and several free or discounted tickets, I recently visited France, Denmark, Belgium and Poland and didn’t attend a single staged opera, but instead sought out concert performances by some of today’s best singers and orchestras—many of whom rarely if ever perform in the US.

For lovers of baroque opera, Parisremains the bomb and there I heard three performances, including Handel’s Semele specially mounted for Cecilia Bartoli with the period-instrument La Scintilla orchestra from the Zurich Opera. Since Bartoli hasn’t sung a complete opera role in theUS since Susanna at the MET thirteen years ago, the concert at the Salle Pleyel was particularly intriguing.  Having dutifully attended most of her big touring “Cecilia-ganzas” over the past decade, I wondered what she would be like in a setting that wasn’t “all about Cecilia.”

Although these Semeles would never have been done without her, the concert proved a most satisfying account of Handel’s secular “oratorio” about the rise and fall of an ambitious woman, here done in a semi-staging that no doubt benefited from some of the singers having worked together in Robert Carsen’s production in Zurich (as seen on the 2007 DVD) and Vienna.  Rather than William Christie in charge (as he had been in those other cities), the fiery Swiss conductor Diego Fasolis led La Scintilla and the excellent English Voices in a vibrant and very un-British performance marred only by some occasional fussiness in the choruses.

With Liliana Nikiteanu a lugubrious Ino, Jaël Azzaetti an excessively cute, shrill Iris, and Brindley Sherratt a slow-to-warm-up Cadmus (he was much better in the second half as Somnus), attention naturally turned to Charles Workman, the American tenor long active primarily in Europe, a debonair Jupiter who nimbly handled his elaborate coloratura but occasionally had trouble sustaining his otherwise finely spun “Where’er you walk.”  French countertenor Christophe Dumaux seemed surprisingly luxe casting for the minor role of Athamas until he was allowed to retain his nearly always omitted third act showpiece where he dispatched the very florid writing with flair but not always with the most ingratiating tone.

Looking (and carrying on) like Rosalind Russell as Sylvia Fowler in The Women, contralto Hilary Summers took an overtly campy approach to Juno, probably not a bad decision since she sounded under-powered and hollow in “Iris, hence away.”  Her contributions to the second half were happily more audible, less hooty although her decidedly androgynous voice is better matched to Handel’s male roles.

And what of the evening’s raison d’être?  Despite an overly snug green haute-couture creation that sometimes forced her walk about the stage like Cio-Cio-San, Bartoli surprised by improving immensely on her 2007 first attempt and portrayed a modest, touching Semele (except, of course, in her expectedly dazzling “Myself I shall adore” where she IS supposed to show-off).  Mostly keeping her mannerisms in check, Bartoli was always splendidly audible if not exactly loud, only occasionally taking excessively slow (or fast) tempi but in general serving the character and the work rather than playing the diva making a royal appearance.

Since Christie has been working his way through Handel’s oratorios for some time now, his recent concert with Les Arts Florissants also at the Pleyel of Handel’s moving final work Jephtha about a king whose rash vow dooms his own daughter (a story very similar to Mozart’s Idomeneo) was a must-attend.  The glories were the sterling work of the large orchestra of over 40 players and particularly of the chorus (singing without scores) which did full justice to some of Handel’s most stirring and moving choruses, particularly “How dark, oh Lord, are Thy decrees” at the end of the second act and which legend holds was written just before Handel was struck by blindness.  On the other hand, the soloists were a mixed bag.

While bass Neal Davies was an ideally forthright and vigorous Zebul, Kurt Streit’s increasing forays into the dramatic tenor repertoire (from Énée to Don José to Wagner’s Erik) have apparently reduced his ability to negotiate as suavely as he used to the elaborate fioratura found in the role of Jephtha; however, he did float a moving “Waft her, angels” in the final act.  Although I adore Kristina Hammarström’s voice and relish any chance I have to hear it, unfortunately Jephtha’s wife Storgé often seemed to lie uncomfortably low for her burnished mezzo.

The role of their daughter Iphis, one of the glories of the oratorios—her music, first joyous then serenely resolved to death, is a gift to a lyric soprano.  Yet the young Katherine Watson was deeply disappointing, her wan manner and colorless voice did little to illuminate this lovely character.  On the other hand, Korean countertenor David DQ Lee dominated the performance as her paramour Hamor, usually a bit of a stick.  His beautifully mellow, agile voice and full-out dramatic commitment (which sometimes threatened to go over the top) surprisingly dominated the performance.

The following evening one wondered if the members of Il Complesso Barocco had read reviews of their recent Ariodante CD since they seemed reinvigorated at a concert performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but they seemed to be blithely ignoring Alan Curtis’s square conducting much of the time and were doubly effective for doing so.

Much of this performance’s interest centered on the first Cleopatra of Karina Gauvin, and, although I’m generally in love with her singing, I didn’t think this role worked particularly well for her.  Gauvin excels at noble rectitude in joy or anguish, but the subtler complexities of the Egyptian queen seemed to baffle her, especially in the least seductive “V’adoro pupille” I’ve ever heard.  However, the subsequent change in Cleopatra’s fortunes brought out the best in Gauvin, particularly a lovely “Piangerò” and then a sizzling “Da tempeste.”

A fellow French Canadian, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, was her Cesare.  Whereas some singers might be criticized for always holding back, Lemieux always seems to be doing too much—the over-emphatic physical gesturing, the vehement vocal attack—excesses seen at their worst in a recent telecast of Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso. Here, she was on relatively good behavior as an effective Cesare, but still one wanted more smoothness in the coloratura, less forcing in the lower register.

The very young Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth (who just won an important Early Music competition in Innsbruck) effectively conveyed Sesto’s innocence and pain at losing his father, but she didn’t quite have the thrust for the vengeance arias that dominate the role’s second half.  His mother, however, was the wonderful Romina Basso whose deeply felt singing turned Cornelia who can be a bore into a fascinating, moving character. Greek mezzo Mary Ellen Nesi—whose brilliant Sesto is one of the best things about George Petrou’s recent Cesare CD (would that Kristina Hammarström, its superb Cesare, could have switched places with Lemieux for these concerts)—seemed strangely detached as the villain Tolomeo, lacking the necessary neurotic menace. The sole male in the cast, bass Johannes Weisser (first brought to attention by René Jacobs in his revelatory Don Giovanni recording) made a vivid, intense Achilla despite a few uncomfortable high notes. This Giulio Cesare was scheduled to be recorded for EMI/Virgin, although reportedly without some of the singers from this performance.

After Paris, I ventured for the first time to Scandinavia for the chance to hear one of Europe’s best yet least celebrated original-instrument orchestras, Concerto Copenhagen (affectionately called “CoCo” by its fans) at its home, the ravishing 1706 Garnisons Kirke with its two spectacular wrap-around balconies and warmly enveloping acoustics.  Although its  programs often feature vocal music, the orchestra here played only instrumental music by Neopolitan composers Durante, Leo, Pergolesi, and Alessandro Scarlatti, although the highlight was one of Charles Avison’s concerti grossi which are, of course, based on sonata movements by Domenico Scarlatti.  Rather than its music director Lars Ulrik Mortensen, this concert was led from the keyboard by the splendid American harpsichordist-conductor Kenneth Weiss who drew wonderfully lustrous and rhythmically vibrant playing from his strings-only group, avoiding the more violent style which one sometimes hears in this music, and the program proved a stimulating break from the far-too-common all-Vivaldi concerts so often heard.

CoCo is probably best known outside Denmark for its videos: DVDs of Royal Danish Opera productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Partenope both starring Andreas Scholl and Inger Dam-Jensen, as well as being the orchestra for Juan, Kaspar Holten’s vivid contemporary take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni starring a frequently unclothed Christopher Maltman, which unfortunately remains unreleased in theaters or on DVD in the US:

Anyone visiting Copenhagen (a friendly and fascinating if scarily expensive city) during the next two months will want to check out Christof Loy’s production of  Alceste with veteran Gluck tragédienne Mireille Delunsch in the title role and Mortensen conducting CoCo in the pit of the Royal Danish Opera.

A big bonus of this trip was the golden opportunity to hear Ann Hallenberg twice.  Instances of unconditional love occur rarely enough in life and probably even less frequently among opera-lovers; few singers past or present excite that feeling in me, yet one singer today who does is this superb Swedish mezzo.  Her seamlessly rich sound and impeccable musicianship rarely disappoint, and she’s as inspired in moving adagio arias (such as Handel’s Scherza infida”) as she is in those filled with coloratura fireworks, but one never feels that her performances are about anything other than serving the composer. I suspect I’m not the only person who would have preferred her to Joyce DiDonato in the recent recording of Ariodante.

To celebrate its twentieth anniversary this year, Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques invited Hallenberg to tour Europe with a program of music written for the famous castrato Farinelli (subject of the lurid 1994 film by Gerard Corbiau).  Featuring arias by Broschi (Farinelli’s brother), Porpora, Giacomelli and Leo, the next-to-last concert of the tour was also my first visit to Brussels’s beautiful Palais des Beaux-Arts. Gamely donning  Farinelli-esque costumes (including an outrageous plumed helmet in the second half—take THAT, Cecilia!), Hallenberg effortlessly sailed through an extremely generous yet ferociously challenging program of eight da capo arias, followed by three encores (including two un-Farinelli arias by Handel).

Sadly, this program is not destined for CD despite it being more satisfying than Vivica Genaux’s similar one on Harmonia Mundi or male soprano Jorg Waschinski’s recent CD of music written by Farinelli himself.

A first visit to the exquisite Polish city of Krakow brought the final and most highly anticipated event of the trip: the world premiere of a pasticcio assembled by violinist-conductor Fabio Biondi based on Vivaldi’s final opera L’oracolo in Messenia ovvero la Merope of which not a single note survives—quite a different sort of animal from the baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island about to premiere at the MET. This coup for Opera Rara,Krakow’s splendid baroque opera series, ended its third season in triumph at Szymanowski Philharmonic Hall.

Truth be told, to label L’oracolo as Vivaldi is misleading; less than half the music was by the Venetian master, in addition to arias by Broschi and Hasse, the majority of the score comes from Giacomelli’s La Merope.  In fact, so fine was his music one wondered why Biondi just didn’t do the Giacomelli opera instead but, of course, it wouldn’t have had the cachet of a Vivaldi “world premiere.”  Whatever the musicological ambiguities, it was thrilling to hear Europa Galante, the world’s best Vivaldi orchestra led as always by Biondi on first violin, really dig into this extravagantly exciting “new” score.

The work features a potentially monochromatic roster of six altos (here, five mezzos and a countertenor) and one tenor.  Yet Biondi’s canny casting avoided any monotony since the singers displayed voices of a wide variety of colors and weights. The insanely complicated plot involves the power struggle between a merciless usurper and the murdered king’s widow (with whom, of course, he is in love) along with the alarming return of her disguised son (long thought dead).

Much of the event’s publicity focused on the young Russian mezzo Julia Lezhneva as Trasimede, a small role with only a single aria—but what an aria—the fiendishly difficult “Son qual nave” by Ricardo Broschi.  Lezhneva displayed arresting virtuosity but the aria felt glib after Hallenberg’s astonishing rendition the previous week in Brussels.  Lezhneva remains a promising work-in-progress but someone who definitely needs some guidance in how to present herself onstage. Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata’s suave and fiery conclusion to act two (from Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica) made one regret that his role also included but a single aria.

So fine as Handel’s Cornelia the week before, Basso proved equally compelling in the Vivaldi and Giacomelli arias sung by Elmira.  The other Italian mezzo Laura Polverelli was a hard-working and earnest Epitide (the long-lost son) but didn’t fully realize the role’s rich potential which included the famous “Sposa non  mi conosci?” (better known as “Sposa son disprezzata”).  One will have to wait for Genaux to step into the role for the concerts early next year being recorded for CD release by EMI/Virgin.

The revelation of the performance was hearing German mezzo Franziska Gottwald for the first time; her self-effacing demeanor as Licisco belied her dazzling singing, particularly her magnificent third-act aria with two horns (the only one by Hasse).Young Norwegian tenor Magnus Staveland portrayed the murderous Polifonte, and although he gave a fiercely committed performance, his singing lagged behind the otherwise high level of the rest of the cast.  His virile tenor never seemed entirely free and he was over his head in the very difficult coloratura of a smashing aria from Vivaldi’s Il Farnace.

Not surprisingly, Hallenberg’s Merope dominated the evening musically and dramatically.  Lacking the showpieces of most of the other characters, Merope’s music carries the drama, particularly in the spectacular third act accompagnato and aria where she realizes that she has ordered the death of her own son. Hallenberg was superb here—even in a concert version riveting in Merope’s horror at her rash act.  (Needless to say, the son is NOT killed and all ends happily).

Obviously this was not a trip suitable for those poor souls who found the recent Met Rodelinda such a trial: “all those dreary da capo arias one after the other, etc.” but enthusiastic sold-out or nearly sold-out audiences attended each concert, particularly the French ones where everyone quickly responded with infectious rhythmic clapping.

Happily the drought in the recording industry hasn’t yet reached baroque opera, but Americans will have to keep making the pilgrimage to Europe to experience live these exceptional singers and orchestras. But perhaps New York will soon be getting a taste when Carnegie Hall presents The English Concert in a three-year series of Handel operas-in-concert beginning next season with Radamisto.