The “main attraction” of the 2016 American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival & Academy is the American premiere (and first performance outside of Europe) of the complete score of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 73 three-act serenata Parnasso in festa (Parnassus in celebration). Last night this premiere took place in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the serenata will be given a second presentation tonight. The performance was based on an edition of the score prepared by Steven Lehning, ABS Artistic Administrator and performer on low register string instruments such as violone and bass. The seven vocal parts were all taken by Academy students; and the instrumental ensemble was the ABS Academy Orchestra, basically the same performers for last Sunday’s first presentation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 Mass setting. As was also the case on Sunday, the choral resources were provided by the American Bach Choir with the addition of one Academy student and two Academy alumni.
The serenata genre was probably familiar to many in the audience, since the 2015–2016 season of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra began with one. The first concert of the season consisted entirely of La Gloria di Primavera (the glory of spring), composed by Alessandro Scarlatti to celebrate the birth of Holy Roman Empire Archduke Leopold on April 13, 1716. Local audiences are thus familiar with the idea of the serenata being celebratory or eulogistic, usually taking the form of a dramatic cantata but more on the durational scale of an opera, rather than a cantata. Since serenatas were composed for one-off occasions, it is understandable that they received little attention once than occasion has passed.
The occasion for Parnasso in festa was the 1734 Royal Wedding in England of Princess Anne to Prince William of Orange. The Princess had been one of Handel’s keyboard students. Handel had close relationships with the British Royal Families going all the way back to his arrival in London in 1710. We may assume that his stake in composing HWV 73 was far more personal that that of Scarlatti’s connection to the family of the Holy Roman Emperor.
While HWV 73 does not, strictly speaking, have a plot, it has a relevant premise, which is the wedding of the mortal Prince Peleus to the sea nymph Thetis, celebrated by the inhabitants of Mount Parnassus led by Apollo. The libretto (whose author is unknown) includes, along with Apollo himself, three of the Muses, Clio (history), Calliope (epic poetry), and Euterpe (lyric poetry), Clori (the Nymph of Flowers & New Growth), the legendary Orpheus, and Mars. It might seem a bit inconsistent for the God of War to attend a wedding, but he is there to predict that the offspring of Peleus and Thetis will all be heroes. This takes place during the final act, which is basically the culmination of the wedding ceremony. By way of contrast, the first act recalls Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne and its unfortunate result (Daphne transformed into a laurel tree), while the second act reflects Orpheus’ fidelity to his wife Eurydice.
Musically, HWV 73 consists of an abundance of arias, a few samples of vocal duet work, and a generous share of rich choral counterpoint and harmonies. To the contemporary listener this can easily be taken as an over abundance. However, the eighteenth century was an era when time could pass at a relaxed rate, at least for royal families and their closest acquaintances. The first performance was given in the King’s Theatre, but there is a good chance that the audience was suitably relaxed by ample food and drink associated with the nuptial occasion. It is unlikely that anyone cared if time was passing at a leisurely pace.
In our own more contemporary setting, the “main attraction” was the quality of the solo vocal resources contributing to the performance. Mezzo Mindy Ella Chu sang the role of Apollo, who is very much the center of attention in the overall scenario. She presented a solid mastery of just about every technical demand set forth by the composer, bringing an expressiveness to her execution that involved not only the music itself but also her technique in establishing physical presence (enhanced by a “power dressing” approach to her attire). Clio (soprano Suzanne Karpov) basically served as “master of ceremonies;” and Karpov performed the role with sensitive attention to keeping things moving. Once again, however, some of the most lyric moments came from contralto Robin Bier with her account of Clori, the character that is probably closest to the spirit of humanity itself. In contrast bass Christopher Besch presented Mars as a commanding presence but never a menacing one.
Because the characters of the libretto play the major role in the celebratory spirit of the composition, the contributions of both chorus and orchestra are, for the most part, those of “supporting players.” Nevertheless, they were the agents to define the overall blend of sonorities; and that blend played as significant a role in establishing the overall rhetoric of the music as did the portrayal of character traits by the soloists. Thus, while there may have been a bit of an overabundance of stimuli to occupy the serious listener, it was difficult (if not impossible) to find any lapses, even when the entire affair extended for well over three hours.