home | art & architecture | books & cds | dance | destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
Period instrument orchestras used to be few and far between. Indeed,
it wasn't until 1952 that Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded Concentus Musicus Wien to give
historically informed performances of antique music. And then, of course, Christopher
Hogwood's house band, The Academy of Ancient Music, began making inroads in 1973, followed
by many others. Conductors like Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, and Rene Jacobs
went big time in this repertory.
Prior to that, no one, other than scholars, seemed to care. Violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler wrote pieces which he ascribed to Vivaldi and other Baroque masters. And though these may have brought the house down, they certainly weren't musically correct. Stokowski's transcriptions of venerated figures like Bach enraged purists. How dare he cut or add instrumental lines? Well, we've come a long way since then and period instrument orchestras, as well as soloists specializing in this rarefied repertory, are almost, but not quite, a dime a dozen, and not just the aforementioned ones.
Which brings us to the undisputed star of this evening, or supporting player, if you will, The Venice Baroque Orchestra, which has achieved a formidable reputation since it was founded in 1997 by conductor-harpsichordist-scholar Andrea Marcon. "Supporting player" because this nineteen piece band functioned in that capacity for a cast of five singers in Handel's opera seria, Siroe, Re di Persia. The Venetian orchestra is credited with giving the first production of this piece since it was premiered by Handel's company at London's King's Theatre on February17, 1728, just twelve days after the composer finished it. Marcon's new production was achieved with the co-operation of Teatro La Fenice four years ago, but not produced there because of the fire which ravaged that legendary house. Handel's opera was his first to a libretto by the celebrated poet Pietro Metastsio ((1698-1782), whose work was set by all of the greatest 18th century composers, including Mozart.
The formality of opera seria is a bit of a stretch for modern audiences weaned on Puccini's over the top verismo and Wagner's "endless melody". Though the orchestra shares equal footing with the singers, the closed form can make the whole thing seem static, even though the story has as many romantic plots and counterplots as Dynasty. But that perceived weakness, to modern ears at least, is what keeps it afloat. Handel, after all, wrote it for several highly virtuosic singers of his day--the great castrato Senesino sang the lead, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni played Princess Laodice, and mezzo Faustina Bordoni, Emira. These two sopranos were serious rivals and that rivalry ended up in an onstage catfight where they clawed each other's wigs to bits on the closing night of the previous season.
Marcon's singers in these parts--the German Simone Kermes and the Czech Katerina Beranova--did not disappoint. Vocal agility, as well as loads of temperament, are what these roles call for, and both delivered the goods. Kermes, who studied with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, seems to have learned lots about dramatic projection and interpretational subtlety from them and her ornamentation was stunning. She's a true coloratura and she did wonders with both rectitatives and arias--especially her house afire, "Or mi perdo di speranza " ( "One moment I lose all hopes"), where she toyed with a pink balloon heart.
Beranova, who started rather weakly, improved as the night went on, and dispatched her duties with aplomb. And though the Italian-Argentine mezzo was announced at the outset as having a cold, it didn't seem to dampen her dramatic projection very much, outside of a slight nasality; and she sang her intensely chromatic air, " Deggio morire, o stelle " ("O stars, I must die"), with great conviction, and movingly, too.
Handel didn't stint on the male parts either. Swiss basso Robert Koller, as King Cosroe, looked and sounded very regal indeed, especially in his showstopping lament, "Gelido, in ogni vena " ("The blood in my veins runs cold"), with detached notes in the strings. Affairs of state really did seem to weigh him down. Countertenor Roberto Balconi, as Medarse, was equally impressive in his falsetto part, and colored it knowingly.
Aiding and abetting the whole evening, in the acoustically challenging confines of Zellerbach's 2000 seat concrete with stucco house, was Marcon's band, which responded with both tenderness and fire, from the four-part overture to the closing vocal quintet. The score calls for oboe 1 and 2, violins 1, 2, and 3, and a basso continuo here comprised of Marcon and Massimiliano Raschietti on harpsichord; Francesco Galligioni and Daniele Cernuto, cello; Alessandro Sbrogio, bass; Ivano Zanenghi, lute, and Evangelina Mascardi, theorbo ( large lute ). The result validated the rightness of Handel's scoring, which gives it a rich, yet infinitely supple sound. A less imaginative composer would probably have added horns to spice up the mix, but Handel did wonders with a carefully restricted palette. Marcon's strings played with both subtlety and verve, and the entire band's sound was wonderfully blended throughout. Indeed the conductor proved what should hardly need proving anymore--that period music can be grand without any pushing. You don't need big forces with music this good.
Berkeley, February 18, 2004 - Michael McDonagh