Last night in Herbst Theatre, American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented a special concert entitled A Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera. The operatic repertoire consisted of arias, duets, and overtures; and the vocalists were countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (recently recipient of the 2019 Jeffrey Thomas Award) and soprano Mary Wilson. The program consisted primarily of arias and duets by George Frideric Handel and overtures by Antonio Vivaldi. However, there were also two arias by Christoph Willibald Gluck and overtures by both Jean-Philippe Rameau and Alessandro Scarlatti.
One of the advantages of living in a city that experiences so many staged and concert performances of Handel’s operatic music, not only in excerpts but also in complete presentations, is that one begins to develop a personal sense of the composer’s “greatest hits.” In my case two of those “hits” were sung by Wilson, “Piangerò la sorte mia” (I will cry my fate) from HWV 17 Giulio Cesare and (probably more popular) “Lascia ch’io pianga mia cruda sorte” (let me weep by cruel fate) from HWV 7 Rinaldo. For me the most familiar of Cohen’s selections was “Vivi tiranno, io t’ho scampato” (live tyrant, I escaped you) from HWV 19 Rodelinda.
Francesco Bernardo (who performed under the name Senesino), the first to sing “Vivi tiranno” (artist unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
On the basis of my familiarity, I can say that both Wilson and Cohen delivered delightfully confident accounts of not only the basic thematic material but also the many challenging ornamental passages that Handel could deploy with such skill. Those three operas also provided the duet selections of the evening, and their shared sense of pitches in harmony was never short of ravishing. To be fair, early in the program Cohen had a bit of trouble with the timing of the entries of the ABS instrumentalists under Thomas’ leadership. This was most evident in the opening aria of the evening, “Sperai vicino il lido” (I hoped that the harbor was close) from Gluck’s Demofoonte; but those problems were resolved by the time he got to “Che faró senza Euridice?” (what shall I do without Euridice) from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
I must confess that all of the overture selections were new to me. I was particularly glad to have a chance to listen to the overture to Rameau’s Pigmalion, since the original melodrama version of that work had been discussed at some length in the book by Ellen Lockhart, about which I wrote towards the end of last month. As might be guessed, the Vivaldi overtures bore a strong family resemblance to his violin concertos, particularly those overtures structured in three movements. For that matter, the overture to the RV 729 Ottone in Villa (Otho at his villa) featured two solo violin parts, suggesting that it might have originated as a concerto movement.
Towards the end of the evening, Thomas thanked the audience for attending and suggested that this might be the beginning of an ABS New Year’s tradition; I would certainly make that part of my own tradition were that to be the case!