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.
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.
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