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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: Tara Erraught

 

Johannes Brahms: Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), Op. 103

More than half of Brahms’ total output was vocal, including over two hundred art songs and an additional hundred folksong arrangements. Most of them are serious, introspective, resigned or elegiac in mood. Ardent, impulsive effusions are rare, and the musical pictorialism so dear to Schubert is likewise largely absent. But there are always exceptions to generalizations and the Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) are just that. In 1887-88, Brahms set eleven Hungarian folk texts, translated into German for him by Hugo Conrat, as vocal quartets with piano accompaniment. He described them to a friend as “excessively joyful.” Biographer Malcolm MacDonald reminds us that they “skillfully combine the appeal of his two most popular and successfully marketed works, the Hungarian Dances and the Liebeslieder Waltzes. In 1889, Brahms transcribed eight of them (omitting Nos. 8-10) for solo voice and piano. All are love songs.

Ottorino Respighi: Three Songs

Respighi’s name is so closely linked to his sensual, sensational musical portraits of Rome (the pines, fountains and festivals) that it is all too easy to overlook his contributions to the vocal repertory, which include nine operas of various dimensions and about 75 songs. The haunting “O falce di luna calante” (The setting crescent moon) is set to words by Respighi’s favourite poet, Gabriele d’Annunzio, and deftly captures the quality of gentle, pale light of a silver crescent in the sky. “Nebbie” (Mists), set to a poem of Ada Negri, was composed for mezzo-soprano, but tenors (including Pavarotti) have adopted it as well. This extraordinary song is sung to grim, slow-moving blocks of sound in the accompaniment while the vocal line twice rises and falls over the range of an octave and a half, simultaneously covering the dynamic range of piano to fortissimo and back. “Notte” (Night), also set to a poem of Negri, makes a perfect companion to “O falce de luna calante” with its poetic evocation of the perfumed night.

Antonin Dvořák: Four Songs, Op. 82; “Na to bych se podivala” from The Stubborn Lovers, Op. 17

Dvořák’s four songs Op. 82 were originally sketched and composed to German texts, then later translated into Czech and English. The words come from verses from the book Lyric Poems and Translations Based on Bohemian Literature and Folk Poetry by Ottilie Malybrok-Stieler. Biographer Paul Stefan describes these songs has having “great emotional intensity and lyric finish.” Concertgoers familiar with Dvořák’s Cello Concerto may recognize phrases from “Lasst mich allein!” that later went into the concerto. This is a love song in which the lady begs to be left undisturbed so as to better savour the memories of her beloved. This strophic song is justly regarded as one of Dvořák’s greatest. The remaining songs also address aspects of love, the second in the context of work bringing comfort to a pained heart, the third a reflection of the warmth and beauty of nature renewed, and the fourth a metaphor for a brook burbling along bearing the poet’s sorrow.

The aria “Na to bych se podivala” comes from the composer’s second opera, a one-act rustic comedy called Tvrdé palice in Czech. It was rendered into German as Dickschädel (Numbskull), from which it made its way into English variously as The Stubborn Lovers, The Obstinate Children or the Pig-headed Peasants. An arranged marriage has been set by two village neighbors for Toník and Lenka, who really love each other but pretend not to because their marriage has been arranged without consulting them first. The youngsters’ godfather comes up with a ruse: Toník’s father is rumored to want to marry Lenka, and Lenka’s mother wants to marry Toník. It’s totally improbable, but it gives Lenka the opportunity for a sprightly aria whose opening line, “I’ll have to look into this!”, sets the tone for what follows.

Hugo Wolf: Six Mörike Songs

Wolf may well be the only major composer who is remembered today for his songs alone. In his musical depictions of poets’ words, Wolf has few equals and no superiors. Accents, pauses, harmonic twists, modulations, textures and figurations all play a role in illuminating the text, in both the vocal and the piano writing.  The essence of Wolf’s vocal compositions can be summarized in Kurt Oppens’ observation: “The singer recites a poem while singing a song.”

Wolf first became acquainted with the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) in 1878. Mosco Carner assesses the songs resulting from the Wolf-Mörike relationship as “giving the impression of having been written out of the very heart of lyricism, and this thanks to the peculiar quality of Mörike’s verses, which are irradiated by a lambent glow and evergreen freshness of imagery.” Skillful use of chromaticism and dissonance, a wide-ranging harmonic palette, and a keen sensitivity to nuance of word and tone are all qualities to be admired in these songs. The 53 songs in the Mörike collection were all written within the brief period of February to November, 1888, and all but three are about some aspect of love.

George Frideric Handel: “Dopo notte” (Ariodante); “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Rinaldo)

Between 1711, when Rinaldo was first seen on a London stage, and 1741 – thirty years later – when Deidamia was produced there, over forty operas flowed from Handel’s pen, many of them hits on the order of a Steven Spielberg film today.

Ariodante (1734) comes from near the end of this run of runaway successes. Ariodante (a male contralto role) is a prince in love with Ginerva, daughter of the King of Scotland. Through various machinations, he is tricked into believing that she has been unfaithful. Near the end of the opera, he has learned the truth about the infamous plot. In “Dopo notte”, one of Handel’s most exuberant arias, he expresses renewed confidence in life, now that his troubles appear to be over.

Fire-breathing dragons, dancing mermaids, a black cloud full of demons, a sorceress, an enchanted palace, two full armies, chariots, war machines, a “battle symphony” with four trumpets and much more went into Rinaldo, the first of Handel’s London operas. Rinaldo also holds a special place in the annals of opera in North America. In Act I, Rinaldo’s fiancé Almirena is been abducted by the evil sorceress Armida. In Act II, Almirena bewails her miserable state in one of the most famous of all Handel arias, “Lascia ch’io pianga”.

Gioachino Rossini: “Una voce poco fa” (Il barbiere di Siviglia)

Great operatic comedies are far less plentiful than operatic tragedies. The Barber of Seville (1816) indubitably stands at the very pinnacle of this repertory, and year after year ranks as one of the Top Ten most frequently performed operas in the repertory. Rosina’s entrance aria, “Una voce poco fa”, is indicative of the Barber’s irrepressible good humor and spirit of rascality. It captures to perfection the personality of the coy and clever heroine as she sings first of her secret love for the mysterious stranger Lindoro, and then of her determination to pursue the object of her desire – and woe to anyone who tries to obstruct her!

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

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