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Program Notes: Joyce DiDonato with Il Pomo d’Oro Chamber Orchestra ‘In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music’

WAR, PEACE and BAROQUE OPERA

The lust for war, the longing for peace: emotions such as these lie at the extremes of human experience. What better place to explore them than in the luridly violent, yet touchingly pathos- filled world of Baroque opera, where chaos reigns in the personal lives of kings and queens, stand- ins for our modern nation-states and their suffering populations?

Opera began at the dawn of the 17th century as an aesthetic experiment, an attempt to recover the poetic practices of the ancient world. By the time of Purcell in the 1680s it had become a dramatic genre capable of involving its spectators in the personal lives of its mythical or legendary protagonists. In the hands of Leonardo Leo, Niccolò Jommelli, and George Frideric Handel in the first half of the 18th century, opera developed into a display vehicle for the talents of an emerging class of professional opera singers—and this is where things got just a bit weird.

It was these singers—high-warbling, preening male castrati at the head of the pack—whose astonishing vocal performances began to drive the dramatic agenda in opera. The da capo aria format (A-B-A), in which the opening material returned at the end, was extremely popular as it allowed singers to “riff” on the melody line the second time round in order to show off their high register, their trills, their skill in ornamentation. Plots were often retro-engineered to provide a place for crowd-pleasing set pieces tailored to suit the vocal capacities of individual singers. In such an artistic climate, an opera might become a hot ticket for its thrilling “rage” aria, its tuneful tear-jerking lament, or for some particularly well characterized scene of worry, torment, or other extreme mental state, the more hair-raising the better. In a world still waiting for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, opera provided chills aplenty for its sensation-craving audiences.

All of these are represented in Joyce DiDonato’s curated selection of Baroque arias presented under the rubric In War and Peace.

 

WAR

Scenes of horror, scenes of woe (Handel, Jephtha, 1752)

First out of the gate is Storgè, wife of the Old Testament figure Jephtha who has rashly vowed that if the Almighty will grant him victory in battle he will kill the first person he meets on the road home—his own daughter, as it turns out. In Handel’s last oratorio, Storgè writhes in thrall to dire premonitions of impending doom, giving vent to her anxiety in a spooky recitative and an aria filled with hysterical leaps. The restless, roving orchestral accompaniment paints the wild thoughts ranging around her head.

Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro! (Leo, Andromaca, 1742)

After the Trojan war, Hector’s widow Andromache tries to save the life of her son by playing the “monster” card, daring Pyrrhus to slaughter the young boy on the spot—and her, too, for good measure.“Drink my blood while you’re at it,” she adds helpfully, by way of culinary encouragement. In an aria filled with frequent changes of mood, Andromache vacillates between blood-thirsty crazy talk and affectionate asides to her son.

Sinfonia (Cavalieri, 1600) and Chaconne in G minor (Purcell, ca. 1680)

Instrumental interludes in early opera served as sonic palate-cleansers, resetting an audience’s emotional register back to ‘neutral’ while at the same time allowing industrious stage-hands to shift furniture on stage. The Sinfonia concluding the first act of Cavalieri’s pioneering Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo repeats a descending scale figure in many guises in a layered orchestral texture featuring a slow, plodding foundation melody enlivened by ornamental chatter in the upper register. Purcell’s Chaconne uses a similar technique, repeating a bass line that prompts the upper instruments into dancelike hops or smooth-flowing descants.

Dido’s Lament (Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, 1689)

In Purcell’s retelling of the Dido story from Vergil’s Aeneid, the Queen of Carthage, having been abandoned by her warrior lover Aeneas, dies of a broken heart in the opera’s final scene. Her heart- rending plea “Remember me, but ah, forget my fate” rings out searingly against the implacable march of Fate symbolized by a chromatically descending bass line.

Pensieri, voi mi tormentate (Handel, Agrippina, 1709)

This scene in which Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, frets that her son Nero will never inherit the throne, is remarkable for the dramatic interplay between orchestra and singer. The orchestra seems to stalk this Lady-Macbeth-with-confidence-issues like a Hitchcockian evil-doer, echoing and paralleling her musical thoughts, with the oboe as voyeur-in-chief to her darkest imaginings.

Tristis est anima mea (Gesualdo, 1611)

Carlo Gesualdo was the Caravaggio of sound-painting, mixing dark and light colours to create startlingly emotional portraits of his subject matter. His spiritual madrigal Sorrowful is my soul is set in the garden of Gethsemane. Drooping sigh motives and searing dissonances evoke the pathos of the scene and an animated middle section describes the bustling crowds that have come to witness the arrest of Jesus.

Lascia ch’io pianga (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

During the First Crusade (1095-1099 AD) Almirena, love interest of the warrior Rinaldo, has been abducted by the sorceress Armida and sits down to bemoan her downcast fate. This lilting sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar, imitates perfectly the halting, sighing resignation of this dramatic character.

 

PEACE

They tell us that you mighty powers (Purcell, The Indian Queen, 1695)

Purcell’s The Indian Queen varies the classic star-crossed-lovers theme by setting its story in the New World, with the Aztec warrior Montezuma as Romeo and the Inca heroine Orazia as Juliet. A distinctly anti-war sentiment runs through the work, rendered emotionally appealing by this simple song sung by Orazia to Montezuma as they are sitting together in prison awaiting execution.

Crystal streams in murmurs flowing (Handel, Susanna, 1749)

Handel’s oratorio Susanna tells the Biblical story of how a virtuous woman is lusted after and spied on by lecherous elders of her community—an ancient prefiguring of Donald Trump in the dressing rooms of his beauty contestants. The set-up to said ogling is a lush garden complete with rippling stream to bathe in (and ample shrubberies for old men to hide in) where Susanna goes for an innocent little skinny-dip. Handel’s powers of musical description are here at their height, with the gently wafting breezes and softly burbling stream deftly imitated in the orchestral accompaniment.

Da tempeste il legno infranto (Handel, Giulio Cesare, 1724)

The simile aria, which Rossini was to send up to hilarious effect in his comic opera finales, was still alive and well in the Baroque age, principally used as a pretext for the most brazen displays of vocal acrobatics on the part of the great divas of the period. Here Cleopatra compares her rescue by Julius Caesar to the safe arrival of a boat through stormy seas. As over-the-top as the opening section is, expect even more vocal acrobatics in the reprise.

Da pacem Domine (Pärt, 2004/2008)

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been compared to the old masters of Renaissance polyphony: Josquin, Palestrina, Lasso. His minimalist style, much influenced by Gregorian chant, stresses diatonic (scale-based) melodies harmonized without the use of chromaticism or modulation. He uses a compositional technique called tintinnabuli (from the Latin for “bell”) which is based on the overlap of fundamental tones and overtones, typical of the sound-decay patterns of large church bells. His choral work Da pacem Domine (Grant us peace, o Lord) evokes the meditative stillness of 16th-century cathedrals, and the presence of a larger spiritual frame of reference, implied but unspoken.

Augelletti, che cantate (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

Meanwhile back in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, Almirena is thinking about her tender feelings for her warrior beau Rinaldo, happy to find herself in yet another lush garden where the birds are chirping merrily on every bough and branch. She eagerly joins in with the sopranino recorder in a picturesque birdsong duet.

Par che di giubilo (Jommelli, Attilio Regolo, 1753)

The Roman consul and military leader Marcus Atilius Regulus, a hero of the First Punic War (264- 241 BC), has returned home from captivity in Carthage to a joyous welcome from his daughter Attilia, who greets him with an aria expressing her elation at this turn of events. British musicologist Simon Heighes, who wrote the liner notes for Joyce DiDonato’s In War and Peace CD, tells us that this aria revels in the “boundless coloratura” that the Neapolitan school of opera-writing was famous for, supported by an attentive and vibrant orchestral backdrop that points towards the new transparent textures of the coming Classical period.

 

– Donald G. Gislason, 2016

Program Notes: Anthony Roth Costanzo

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO

 

Henri Duparc was, with Berlioz and Fauré, among the pioneers of la mélodie (the French art song, as distinguished from folk song). His career was remarkable in that although he lived for 85 years, his reputation rests on barely more than a dozen songs. “Chanson triste” was Duparc’s first song, written at the age of twenty and published with four others as his Op. 2 in 1868.  It displays the quintessentially Gallic qualities of elegance, charm, sensitivity and polish. It also engages our imagination in a melancholic, yearning clair de lune setting of a text by the Symbolist poet Jean Lahor. “L’Invitation au voyage” takes for its text the famous Baudelaire poem of the same title. The poet’s dream world steeped in drugs, the atmosphere suffused with orientalism, and the imaginary voyage of the mind, were captured to perfection by Duparc in this masterpiece of ambiguous harmonies, unstable rhythms, sensuous imagery and vague meaning. In “Phidylé” Wagnerian chromaticism is much in evidence, as is the continuous development of melodic cells, the atmosphere of vague longing, an almost Tristanesque sensuality and rise to an ecstatic climax.

Few composers have captured in music the spirit and essence of their homeland with the vividness and poignancy as has Benjamin Britten. One of the many manifestations of Britten’s “English-ness” is found in settings of his country’s folksongs. “The Ploughboy,” in Britten’s arrangement of a tune by the English composer William Shield (1748-1829), takes a humorous, even cynical view of social advancement in the late eighteenth century. The text of “The ash grove” is a reflection on meetings with a deceased beloved, set to a well-known Welsh tune. “The foggy, foggy dew” exists in numerous versions, and has acquired something of a reputation for its bawdy text. Burl Ives was jailed for singing it in public in Utah, and the BBC had restrictions on broadcasting it. And just what is the “foggy, foggy dew”? That’s open to interpretation!

The enormously prolific and versatile Franz Liszt, though best known for his orchestral and piano music, also wrote more than eighty songs in six languages. Freedom of form and advanced harmony are commonly found in these songs, many of which he revised two, three or even four times, sometimes turning them into keyboard transcriptions as well. Although Liszt is usually billed as a Hungarian, he never spoke this language well, and the language he set most often in songs was German.

Liszt’s original setting of Heine’s poem “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” (In the Rhine, the beauteous stream) depicted a river bursting with energy. The revised, commonly heard version is more subtle, portraying a gently flowing body of water. “In Liebeslust” (In love’s delight), set to a poem by Liszt’s close friend Hoffmann von Fallersleben, is a song so taken with love that the immortal words “Ich liebe dich” are emphatically sung nine times in three groups in three different manners. “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” (Peace reigns on every peak) is a setting of one of Goethe’s most famous poems (“Wandrers Nachtlied II”), one that has inspired dozens of composers, including Schubert and Schumann. Liszt’s song presents a picture of almost unearthly stillness. The lovely song about religious love, “Hohe Liebe” (Exalted love), to a text by Ludwig Uhland, also exists in a more extended version as the first of the three Liebesträume for solo piano. “Ihr Glocken von Marling” (Ye Bells of Marling) is a late song (1874). The bells of Emil Kuh’s poem are evoked in impressionistic, almost mystical terms in Liszt’s gently pulsing music.

Just after the fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived in Milan in February of 1770, he was commissioned to write his first full-length opera seria, which was premiered that December. Mitridate, rè di Ponto was a great success, receiving 22 consecutive performances, but then dropped from sight until it was revived in Salzburg in 1971.The plot focuses on the love triangle between Aspasia, betrothed to King Mithradates of Pontus (a region on the Black Sea, now part of Turkey) and his two sons Sifare and Farnace. In his first aria of the opera, Farnace resolves to back the Roman contingent in the city and to challenge his father’s political position. It is a thrilling aria of substantial dimensions (over seven minutes in length), shot through with fortitude and steely determination.

Georg Friedrich Handel composed an enormous amount of music, including more than forty operas. With each of these productions containing an average of 25 arias, simple arithmetic gives us the astounding figure of well over 1,000 arias just for this body of music alone. Giulio Cesare (1724) was enormously successful and, along with Rinaldo, remains Handel’s most frequently performed opera today. The story takes place in Egypt in 48 B.C. at the time of the Roman campaign led by Caesar. By the beginning of Act III, Caesar is presumed drowned, but miraculously he survives. Drawing himself up on the shore, he bemoans his fate, the disappearance of his troops and the loss of his beloved Cleopatra in an aria of touching simplicity. The plot of Flavio (1723) deftly combines elements of the comic and the tragic. Guido’s Act II rage aria, “Rompo i lacci”, written for the famed castrato Senesino, races along at a breathless pace and features a number of melismas, two of which go on for an extraordinary 49 notes (a melisma is a string of notes sung to a single syllable). The plot of Amadigi (1715) involves a complicated love quadrangle. The men Amadigi and Dardano are both in love with Oriana (who loves only Amadigi), while the sorceress Melissa is also in love with Amadigi. In Act II, Dardano (a castrato role), despairing of ever winning Melissa for himself, sings his magnificent aria “Pena tiranna” to the sarabande rhythm (long-long, [breath], short long-long, [breath], etc.)

It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin was born on one shore of America (Brooklyn) and died on the other (Hollywood), for his music has been played, embraced, loved and cherished as has that of virtually no other composer the United States has ever produced. His output of over 500 songs, many of them written to lyrics by his older brother Ira, nearly equals Schubert’s in size. “I Got Rhythm” and “Sam and Delilah” both come from the musical comedy Girl Crazy (1930), whose story takes place in America’s Wild West. What made audiences crazy about Girl Crazy was a young newcomer in the cast, Ethel Merman, an actress “whose personality swept through the theater like a tropical cyclone,” as one critic put it. These two songs belonged to her. “Embraceable You” is one of Gershwin’s most irresistibly seductive songs, but probably the one that more people know than any other is “Summertime”, the languorous lullaby Clara sings to her infant shortly after the curtain goes up on the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

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