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Friday, August 23, 2013

Concert Review: The Departed and the Heroic

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment pays tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Peter Sellars' production of Theodora at Glyndebourne.
Photo by Mike Hoban © 1996 Glyndebourne Festival.
On Thursday night, the Mostly Mozart Festival welcomed the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a special concert of Handel arias and orchestral works, specifically dedicated to the memory of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. (who succumbed to breast cancer in 2006) was one of the premiere mezzo-sopranos of the modern age, a key member of a generation of singers responsible for renewing the public's interest in the operas of Handel and baroque repertory in general.

As Ms. Lieberson was known for playing travesti roles in operas like Giulio Cesare and Xerxes, the performance focused on the heroic arias given to Handel's volatile young heroes, where ornamentation by the singer is meant to represent the tumult of emotions within the characters. The O.A.E. were regular recording partners with the singer. Here, the period orchestra (with string and wind players that perform while standing up) was under the baton of Laurence Cummings.

The concert opened with the Overture to Giulio Cesare with two harpsichords and theorbo providing chugging accompaniment to the strings and winds. Mr. Cummings led a brisk, energetic account of this overture, although the sound of the ensemble was a little cloudy. The first aria of the evening followed directly, as mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupíc entered with "L'angue offese ma riposa", Sesto's big revenge aria from Cesare. She proved an agile singer, but her tone quality was difficult to judge as the singer was battling an illness.

The next work as "As with rosy steps the morn," a monologue and aria from the oratorio Theodora, delivered by Anna Stéphany. A chronicle of early Christianity, Theodora is one of the composer's most successful oratorios. The seriousness of its message with an intense performance that never degenerated into mere vocal display. She sang with intensity and purpose, especially in the fast middle section of the aria.

Handel the instrumental composer was next, with the O.A.E. delivering a big-shouldered, muscular performance of the Concerto Grosso in B Minor. This five-movement piece showed the skill of ensemble and soloists, with spirited allegros alternating with solemn largo movements. The first half ended with the return of Ms. Pokupíc. Fighting against her illness, the singer made a race of "Where shall I fly?" drawn from the composer's Hercules. Following this, she withdrew from the rest of the evening.

The second half began as the first did, with the pairing of an overture and aria. This time, the selections were from Theodora with crisp winds and strings followed by Ms. Stephany's pliant, flexible instrument taking on the prayer "Lord to Thee each night and day." She needed that divine help for the next selection, as she had agreed backstage to sing Ms. Pokupíc's remaining selection. Crossing her fingers and working from sheet music, Ms. Stephány soared through "Dopo notte", the fearsomely difficult aria from Handel's Ariodante.

Next: another Concerto Grosso. This one, in B Flat Major, allowed the two principal violins and oboe of the O.A.E. to display their considerable abilities as soloists against the orchestral background.  The soloists traded violin lines in the first movement, playing Handel's intricate counterpoint with understanding and a joy in music-making. Oboist Katherina Spreckelsen played a long complex solo part over one of the slow movements.

The final aria on the program was "Svegliatevi nel core", drawn once more from the vast expanses of Giulio Cesare. Ms. Stephány offered her take on Sesto, the opera's young, heroic figure. With her agile performance and full, round tone, this performance evoked the spirit of Ms. Lieberson better than any that had gone before. It was followed by a brief Musette from another Concerto Grosso, described as a "wordless song" in memory of the great departed mezzo-soprano.

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