Monday, February 9, 2015

Opera Feroce - Candlemas - 02/07/15

Bach: Duet for Flute and Violin, H 598, Wq 140 - Andante
Britten: A Hymn to the Virgin
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
Telemann: Duet in G Major for Flute and Violin, TWV 40:111
Stradella: Opening trio from La Circe
Stradella: Three arias from Otia si tollas periere Cupidinis Arcus
Bach: Duet for Flute and Violin, H 598, Wq 140 - Allegro
Porpora: Duet from Deos qui salvasti
Porpora: Trio from Act III of Temistocle
Pacini: Trio Finale from Act I of Il contestabile di Chester  also known as I fidanzati

As winter is apparently not ending anytime soon (Damn that groundhog!) I have been happily hunkered down, not really looking forward for a good reason to go out, especially in the evening. That was until I serendipitously came across an intriguing announcement about a donation-based BYOB concert featuring Baroque music, Britten and more that would be presented by the tiny but ambitious Opera Feroce company in the candlelit chapel of a former convent located within walking distance of my apartment. Some offers are just too good to pass.
A an added bonus, the walls of the staircase of the Ascension School’s building turned out to be covered with murals by no less than Keith Haring, which provided a surprise treat for the eyes on my way to the "sacred and profane celebration for mid-winter with music of four centuries". Once inside, the opera company was facing the good problem of having to deal with an unexpected surge of people in the miniature chapel, where 50 warm bodies are more than enough to form an impressive crowd, but extra chairs were found, wine was poured, lights were dimmed, and the musical feast finally began.

The concert opened with a graceful Andante of the duet for Flute and Violin by Bach, setting a tone that was both dignified and festive. We then jumped ahead to 20th century Benjamin Britten with "A Hymn to the Virgin" and A Ceremony of Carols. Although the latter was written for a treble chorus, solo voices and a harp, there was a lot to enjoy in this pared-down version involving an actress, three singers and a harpsichord. Among other things, it made it easier to focus on the artless beauty of the text as each carol was first read, then sung.
The overall feel of the whole affair being definitely closer to a casual get-together than a formal occasion, the intermission included drinks and snacks, among which stood out some mercilessly addictive brownies, and more music with a lively duet for flute and violin by Telemann, a nice tribute to 18th century German Baroque music.
The second piece programmed for the intermission was from 17th century Italian Baroque composer Alessandro Stradella. "Bei ruscelli cristallini", the opening trio from his opera La Circe, was the singers' first foray of the evening into Baroque music and immediately showed their natural inclination, deep knowledge and remarkable skills for it. In fact, the vibrant bucolic scene was so powerfully expressive that we all forgot that this was still intermission and gave the performance our complete and undivided attention.
The official program resumed with three arias from Stradella's cantata morale Otia si tollas periere Cupidinis Arcus, during which mezzo-soprano Hayden De Witt playfully impersonated a fearless Apollo brandishing his sword, countertenor Alan Dornak a mighty Mars flinging his flail and soprano Beth Anne Hatton a fired-up Diana armed with her bow and arrow, all rambling on and on against poor little Cupid. The goofiness of the accessories, the light-hearted delivery and the unflappable exactness of the singing made each aria an unquestionable stand-out in its own way, neatly backed up by the small but fierce orchestra. Cupid, beware!
Things cooled off a bit with the spirited Allegro from the duet for Flute and Violin by Bach, then took another Italian turn with 18th century Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora through a duet from his sacred cantata Deos qui salvasti and a trio from his opera Temistocle, during which two highly distressed children are begging their starkly determined father not to go to war. A note-worthy particularity of this number was having the mezzo sing the girl part and the soprano the boy part, which they did with equal gusto and aplomb.
The same theme was also found in the last work of the evening, the final trio from Act I of Giovanni Pacini's opera Il contestabile di Chester. A famous and prolific opera composer back in the 19th century, Pacini is hardly a household name these days, even to Italian opera aficionados, and the substantial excerpt we heard performed by the three singers and a solo piano clearly demonstrated that it is a real shame. The plot may not have been much, but the solid musicality of the piece was undeniable, all the way to the resounding finale. Baroque music has rarely been so uplifting.

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