For some classical music fans, the biggest casualty of the pandemic has been the cancellation of the annual performance of the English Concert’s Handel opera and conductor Harry Bicket. It’s another big sign of approaching normality that the ensemble was back at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon with a superb group of singers to play. Tight. The concert, as usual, was one of the best things heard so far this season.
No one plays and sings Handel like these musicians, and few composers display as much vocal and expressive artistry as Bicket. And the English gig regularly reserves excellent singers who are technically virtuosic and full of musical artistry and inner life.
Sunday included rising star mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo in the title role; Soprano Lucy Crowe as Romilda, the woman Serse pursues; mezzo Paula Murrihy as Serse’s brother, Arsamene; soprano Mary Bevan as Atalanta, Romilda’s sister; and mezzo Daniela Mack as Amastre, the princess promised to Serse in marriage.
This cast of characters alludes to the near-incomprehensibility of the plot, which revolves around a letter that’s both aimed at a specific character but not addressed to anyone in particular – apparently, because more than one cheater thinks it’s for them. The story is a bit more standard, at least for an opera – it’s a love pentagon, as Romilda is engaged to Arsamene, Atalanta is in love with Arsamene, and Amastre spends most of the opera disguised as a soldier and a anger at Serse for not recognizing her.
As heavy as it sounds on paper – with the threat of exile and execution in the background – at its heart, this is a comic opera about love, misunderstanding, reconciliation and redemption. The two male leads advance, bass-baritone Neal Davies as the deadpan general Ariodate, father of the sisters, and formidable baritone William Dazeley as the clown clown, Elviro.
It all works because the music is not only brilliantly lyrical, as Handel is, but full of invention and character, and these singers have filled it with a rich personality. We also feel that the concert brings out the best in the singers; with nothing but the simplest modern costumes and occasionally witty staging, there’s no other way to tell the story but sing it.
At the very beginning is one of Handel’s most famous arias, “Ombre mai fu”, sung by Serse. It is, of course, one of opera’s fine lyrical arias, but not even the finest of its kind. But it underscores an important feature of the score, that the slower arias are the climaxes of the opera. While Handel’s fast music is full of dazzling articulation, the slow tunes give singers the most profound opportunities to show their expressive and interpretive musicianship, and develop the most beautiful sounds.
And while the articulation and ornamental vibrato were excellent throughout the performance, it was a resounding pleasure to hear voices like Crowe’s extend and sustain Handel’s lines. “Ombra mai fu” is followed by “O voi”, Romilda’s response to Serse’s audition, and Crowe’s singing was exquisite. His bright, pure tone was beautiful in itself, and his dynamics and rising and falling phrasing were extremely expressive and beautiful. Likewise, his virtuoso articulation in fast music was thrilling in this bravura performance.
D’Angelo seemed a little stiff at first, maybe a little too majestic. But as the concert progressed, her vocal balance loosened into an artistic and efficient approach to phrasing – she seemed to sing in a coordinated rhythm with the orchestra but a bit slower. There was a feeling that as king, Serse was taking control of the passage of time. Add to that the blackness of his voice, strong as iron but without heaviness, and it was a musically and dramatically first-class performance.
Murrihy sang with as much beauty as Crowe, and Bevan and Mack were fully involved in the character of their music. On an overall scale, there was an interesting aesthetic feature that added to the effect of the performance – no countertenor was found in any of the ‘pants’ roles. These types of roles are an integral part of operatic tradition, from Handel to Strauss and Stravinsky, and the tradition is little regarded. But the effect is still worth considering, at least for the expressive ambiguity it opens up, as the listener is invited to accept the convention of a clear female voice in a male role.
In his time, Handel wrote these parts for a castrato in the lead, with contraltos in the other “masculine” tracks. With an artist like D’Angelo, that ambiguity is part of the fun. The richness and strength of her voice, especially the timbre in her low register, was less about being specifically masculine than about being authoritative and imperial. Her aloof and unhurried posture on stage was part of that, everything she sang was about dictating actions, and so the music and the other characters circling around her on their own were a compelling part of the drama.
Just like the multiple layers of vocal and dramatic complexity. Murrihy’s lighter mezzo made Arsamene not only softer but friendlier than Serse. And Mack, singing both forcefully and a laid-back, self-contained swagger, was a great joker. Her role was the necessary trickster who sparks key conflicts, and her stage presence was explicitly about a woman enjoying being disguised as a man, not comedic but serious, and mocking Serse for not seeing through the subterfuge. His great Act III aria, “Cagion son io”, another of Handel’s slow, searing numbers, was exceptional, one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the performance, Mack expressing a complex mixture of anger, grief and determination.
The instrumental performance was of this same level. The English concert produces an extraordinary range of color, beyond that of most period instrument groups, and the intonation of the strings was flawless, a purity of sound that was simply charming and touching in itself. . The pacing was perfect throughout, and some stagings even got Bicket in the act, with Atalanta flirting with him at one point, and at another the bandleader, with a touch of exasperation, got up to pass the infamous letter to another character. , as if he had seen enough.