Roman Holiday: Young Handel’s Italian Adventures
St. Stephens Episcopal Church
May 12, 2018
Review by Sharon Cumberland
An evening with Stephen Stubbs and the terrific performers of Pacific MusicWorks always gives you more than you could have expected or hoped for. This imaginative program—“Roman Holiday: Young Handel’s Italian Adventures”—not only gave the audience a wonderful evening of music, but it educated the listener in Handel’s early influences, his germinating ideas, the influence of the Roman Arcadian Academy on the development of baroque opera and oratorio, and, as always, a visual education on how baroque music looks as well as sounds. On this occasion, in addition to the always-fascinating sight of great performers playing their instruments, soprano Amanda Forsythe enacted Handel’s cantata heroines in all their tragic beauty.
It was a great way to spend mothers Mother’s Day, watching a small group of six virtuosi—two violins, a baroque harp, a baroque cello, a harpsichord and Conductor Stubb’s baroque guitar and lute—create a world of intense drama using George Frederick Handel’s earliest vocal works. The effects were thrilling to say the least. Ms. Forsythe sang four demanding cantatas based on ancient narratives of Roman queens and pastoral nymphs: Agrippina, condemned to death by her own son, Nero; a nameless pastoral figure mourning the departure of Clori, a lovely nymph; and two cantatas of a jilted lovers: Clori (perhaps the same character as in the earlier episode) who is jilted by her lover Fileno, and the lament of the forsaken Armida, who mourns the loss of her retreating warrior even as his footsteps fade in the background. Ms. Forsythe portrayed each of these voices with individualized characterizations, moving through despair, rage, confusion, mourning, and resignation with precise and touching fidelity to the dramatic narrative as well as to the music.
Ms. Forsythe was also very much in tune with the baroque aesthetic that calls on the singer to have a pleasing facial expression even while singing about anger or despair. According to this aesthetic, the mouth shouldn’t be opened too widely or the features distorted beyond the enactment of emotion. Baroque singing, with all its trills and melismas, is sometimes weird to watch if the singer has to contort his or her face to achieve the demands of this very complex music, so I was impressed that Ms. Forsythe maintained a countenance that was always composed, even during the longest and most challenging passages. And, it must be said, Ms. Forsythe is a beautiful woman who wore gorgeous gowns that perfectly evoked the dramatic moments she embodied. In the first half of the program she wore a kind of marbled silk that appeared at once ancient and modern, and in the second half of the program she wore a cascading chiffon gown that made her sparkling bodice appear as though she were emerging from the ocean. (I think her designer needs a program credit).
Each half of the program also featured a sonata—the first by Corelli, who was one of young Handel’s greatest influences, and the second by Handel in his playful Roman stage, showing how his early work was influenced by the masters, and how his own masterworks were anticipated by his youthful products. It’s a joy to watch Conductor Stubbs and his players—including the incomparable pair of violinists Tekla Cunningham and Ingrid Matthews—as they entwine, chase, and unfold their musical voices in the beautifully structured world of Handel and Corelli. It’s like watching choreography as one player after another constructs the waves of form that build up like filigree and then undo themselves like waves crashing on a beach. They even sway back and forth like sea creatures in waves of music.
It looks like so much fun—and gives a strong sense of people living happy and exciting lives, both the composers and the players, from the eighteenth century to the present. Pacific MusicWorks’ basso continuo—Henry Lebedinsky’s harpsichord, Elisabeth Reed’s cello, and Conductor Stubb’s lute and guitar—provided the solid foundation and varied texture of support that makes baroque music so interesting. You can go to a Beethoven or Brahms concert and hear different interpretations of musical text, but you’ll always hear the same text. Baroque music allows for so much improvisation and variation that a musical piece—no matter how familiar—is never the same text twice. Baroque ensembles are known for how well they manage this wide-open world of choices, and Pacific MusicWorks is justly famous for how inventively musical and how faithfully true to the eighteenth-century spirit they present their musical inventions. Stephen Stubbs is a famous baroque scholar who can transform a piece of music, as he does with one of the arias presented, “Col partir la bella Clori”, by composing additional parts for violins to accentuate the genre of music and the mood of the lyrics.
This was the final concert of the 2017-2018 season, but Pacific MusicWorks’ 2018-2019 season is on the way, starting in October with Monteverdi Masterworks and continuing through an exciting year of baroque orchestral and vocal music, offering Handel’s thrilling oratorio, Samson, for its operatic performance of the season. If you’ve never seen this fabulous group, take the time now to look over their offerings for next year. You’re in for an unusual and exciting treat.