April 3rd, 2014

Ensemble Musical Offering: “Hallmarks of Handel”

On Saturday evening, March 29th, we went to the Cathedral Church of All Saints to hear Ensemble Musical Offering’s program, “Hallmarks of Handel”.
On this evening, the group featured Joan Parsley on harpsichord; Gesa Kordes and Christine Hauply Annin, baroque violins; Edith Hines, baroque viola; Tulio Rondon, baroque cello; Sung Lee, baroque flute and oboe; Sian Ricketts, baroque oboe; and Theresa Koenig, baroque bassoon and recorder. Vocalists Chelsea Morrison and Sarah Richardson, sopranos, also appeared.

The program began with the Keyboard Concerto in B-Flat Major, Op. 4, #2. This was perhaps the only piece of the evening that had any defects, as we did notice a few missed notes on the part of Ms. Parsley. In fairness, it must be said that she had some trouble with her sheet music slipping during the performance, but we did think this very ambitious piece was not quite ready yet.

Ms. Morris and Ms. Richardson joined the group for the Arcadian Duet, “Quel fior ch’all’alba ride,” (HWV 192), which was just lovely. We found the close harmony of the two singers’ voices to be most pleasing.

Next, was the “Sinfonia for bassoon, strings, and bc (basso continuo?) in B-flat Major” (HWV 338), featuring Ms. Koenig on the bassoon. I was very interested in this piece, since I played bassoon in my high school concert band, and watched closely to see how the baroque bassoon is different from the modern standard Heckel system bassoon I used. The differences are striking, with the baroque bassoon having far fewer keys—five, as distinct from 25-27 on a modern bassoon—and more open finger holes. I was very impressed with Ms. Koenig’s mellow tone and agility in playing the lead role in this piece, which we both enjoyed immensely.

The first half ended with the Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 4 in F Major (HWV 315), which was also quite fine.

After the interval, the group recommenced with Suite in G Major, Wassermusik (HWV 305), followed by the aria “Augelletti, che cantate” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. The title means “Little birds that sing,” and, in a clever innovation, was also accompanied by recorded songs of Spanish canaries. Ms. Richardson sang the aria, and Ms. Koenig accompanied on the soprano recorder. Mr. Lee played the flute for this piece, and Ms. Ricketts the tenor recorder.

Then, back to Arcadia for the two ladies to sing “No, di voi non vuo fidarmi,” (HWV 189), followed by Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 6 in D Major, (HWV 317).

All these pieces were beautifully done, and the enthusiastic applause elicited a rare encore, “Lascia ch'io pianga,” from Rinaldo, sung by Ms. Morris. This was exquisitely done, one of the best renditions of this piece we have heard, and drew a standing ovation.

Overall, a very fine concert which we enjoyed greatly. We are looking forward to the group’s C.P.E Bach program in May.

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Florentine Opera: ”Julius Caesar”

We continued our “Handel weekend” by attending the Florentine Opera on Sunday afternoon the 30th for their production of “Julius Caesar” (“Gulio Cesare in Egitto”).

We were a bit leery given the local paper’s unfavorable review of the sets and costumes. (We consider opera to be a combined art form in which the visual is important as well as the music and are disappointed when presented with dull or ugly sets and poorly chosen costumes--). However, we liked the effect much better than the newspaper. The plain, white steps, platforms, and drapes evoked either sun-bleached marble columns, sandstone pillars, or the desert dusk with blue pyramidal shadows, depending on the lighting. Intentionally dim rear-projections evoked visions, particularly those of the spirit of Pompey as visualized by his son, the apparition evoking the ranks of cyclopean statues found in Egyptian temples.
All of the small cast sang very well. Ironically, Deanne Meek, in the title role of Caesar, had the least powerful voice, and was occasionally overwhelmed by the baroque-sized orchestra, especially in early scenes. However, as the opera progressed, a better balance was struck.

In the opera, Caesar and his troops have come to Egypt chasing his rival, Pompey. Pompey’s wife, Cornelia (Eve Gigliotti) and son Sesto (Adriana Zabala), come to Caesar as emissaries, offering that Pompey will surrender to Caesar if his life will be spared. Caesar agrees, but Achilleas (Derrick Ballard), general of the Egyptian forces under Tolomeo (Ptolemy, Ian Howell), enters, bearing Pompey’s severed head as a “gift” to Caesar. Tolomeo has had Pompey, who sought refuge with him, slain in hopes that Caesar will then side with him against his sister, Cleopatra (Ava Pine), and make Tolomeo sole ruler of Egypt. Caesar rejects the gift and upbraids the Egyptians for their treachery. Sesto vows that he will avenge his father’s death.

Hearing of Pompey’s death, Cleopatra plans to curry favor with the Romans in her own way. When Achilleas tells Tolomeo of Caesar’s reaction, Tolomeo agrees to let Achilleas take Cornelia as his wife if Achilleas will kill Caesar for him.

The plot continues with Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar, Achilleas’ attempted assassination, civil war between Tolomeo and Cleopatra, in which she is taken prisoner, and Caesar’s return. Achilleas is stabbed at Tolomeo’s order when Tolomeo decides he would rather have Cornelia for himself. The dying Achilleas turns over control of his troops to Sesto, who in turn renders them to Caesar. Caesar stages a rescue of Cleopatra, and, during the assault on the palace, Sesto interrupts Tolomeo’s attempt to ravish his mother, and takes revenge for his father.
With Tolomeo dead and Caesar in control, Cleopatra is triumphantly crowned sole Queen of Egypt.

Again, all the singing was very good, and the parts well acted. Ms. Meek as Caesar was appropriately active and manly, and Ms. Pine’s Cleopatra was interestingly more of a hoyden than a femme fatale. Countertenor Howell was nicely slimy as Tolomeo, he being one of the few cast members whose character was aided by his costume and hairstyle, which reminded me of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of King Herod.

Costuming was distinctly a mixed bag. The setting was “updated” to refer to Italy’s 1930’s invasion of Ethiopia, so Caesar and his aide, Curio (Pablo Siqueiros) wore period-appropriate Italian army officer uniforms. Cornelia’s long skirts were more Edwardian. Achilleas wore Bedouin-style desert robes, while the supernumeraries who pose as his men wore Ptolomaic-era kilts. Cleopatra’s bizarre wardrobe came from no known fashion plate, while her maid, Nirena’s (Erin Gonzales) outfit said “generic peasant girl.”

I must note that the “supers” Shawn Holmes and Nigel Wade, although they have no lines, really did an excellent job as the “Nubian” soldiers, who have quite a lot to do. I think someone had studied 1930’s “B-movies” as they were quite evocative of that period, stalking around the stage, clutching their curved daggers.

The orchestra, conducted by William Boggs, played Handel’s score without detectable flaw, and in general supported the singers appropriately.
Taken all together, we had a enjoyed our afternoon at the opera very much, and were very pleased with this production.

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