Last night Emmanuelle Haïm led from the harpsichord a triumphant demonstration of how well the French can do baroque. The evening began with violinist Stéphanie-Marie Degand in Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Summer” concertos. The sound—with a select ensemble of L.A. Phil regulars—was delicate, dry and refined. The performance was intensely alive. Degand interacted with the other musicians, especially the other violinists during the bird song section of “Spring”.
The rest of the evening was devoted to highlights from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724), with soprano Natalie Dessay and countertenor Christophe Dumaux. Dessay personified elegance and drama even when she was just sitting down listening to her colleagues. When she sang, she was completely in character—Cleopatra scheming, wailing, crowing. When the music was dark she crafted delicately pathetic shadings, sometimes delivering the melody in a heart-stopping whisper. When the music was upbeat, she bopped along like “Da tempeste il legno infranto” was “Uptown Funk.” She was fantastic in the MetLive Giulio Cesare, but now I realize that I really, really need to see her perform live on stage.
Dumaux, looking extremely dapper, accomplished even more impossible vocal feats with grace and a roguish wit. His music was more purely spectacular, but there were also moments when his high, perfectly clear tones resonated plaintively.
As during the Vivaldi, the soloists interacted with instrumentalists—flute, clarinet, violin—with a winning intimacy.
A week earlier there was another masterclass on musical theater—MetLive's presentation of Rossini’s La Donna del lago (1819). A new production—the Met’s first ever (!)—directed by Paul Curran, conducted by Micheli Mariotti.
It’s almost a parody of opera—of all the absurdities that everybody criticizes opera for. At the slightest pretext—or no pretext at all—characters suddenly explode in titantic outbursts of passion. In the middle of violent action—running for your life, fighting a duel—characters have sufficient leisure to sing extended arias of impossibly intricate music. The story was adapted from Sir Walter Scott in a way that minimizes the plausibilities and maximizes the absurdities. It ends with the lovers united and everybody happy. And so on …. I used to consider these qualities faults, but now I can appreciate them as values.
The decisive element was Joyce DeDonato (Elena), whose mastery of the music and whose engagement with the drama are absolute and irresistible. And for once her colleagues are up to her mark: Juan Diego Flórez (King James V), John Osburn (Rodrigo) and especially mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, who triumphs despite having to play Elena’s true love Malcolm while dressed in a kilt. The two women sing passionate love duets, at one moment achieving topicality as they vow, despite all, to marry.
There are similarities between the dramaturgy of Handel and Rossini. Rossini’s Elena doesn’t express her feelings in musical ejaculations, but in intricate, involved studies, just like Handel’s Cleopatra.
But there’s a difference in sensibility: Handel’s aria’s present moods, or rather modes that are passionate but not especially individualized. You could say they're impersonal. Whereas Rossini’s aria’s seem closer to portraits of individuals at specific psychological states. Rossini wrote Donna at the time when novelists were beginning to explicate the psychological states of their characters more minutely than ever before. One of these pioneers, Stendhal, wrote one of the first books on Rossini. I used to wonder why.
Barbara Willis Sweete’s videography for this MetLive production was admirable. There were no embarrassing close-ups of saliva spray or HD excursions up the singers’s noses. The camera kept a respectful distance, and permitted appreciation of Kevin Knight’s attractive stage pictures.
[Image: Singer with glove (Degas, 1878)]