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Baroque opera: Handel and Purcell

In our musical household, there’s often a race to see who gets to the “turntable” first.  So rather than argue over who got to do which day and which song to pick, we decided to offer song pairings, some linked by theme, time, or place, others by whim. Today it’s Baroque opera favorites.

Phil’s pick – Purcell, King Arthur: What power art thou

For me, the music of Henry Purcell was pretty much love at first hearing. “Dido’s Lament” can do that to you, but the further I explored, the more I loved. As evidenced by the “Lament”, the song “Music for a While”, or the stately and haunting “Chacony” for viol consort, few composers could do so much with a repeated bass line. “What power art thou”, from the semi-opera King Arthur, is an almost one-note song with a repeated progression and an inexorable tread. Part of a masque known as the Frost Scene in Act III, this air is sung by the Cold Genius, who grumpily awakes to Cupid’s call and asks to be allowed to go back underground to sleep and freeze to death. The shivering effects in both voice and strings grab your attention, but it is Purcell’s grave and gorgeous chromatic harmony that holds it.

Aleba’s pick  Handel, Orlando: Amor e qual vento

This week is the two-year anniversary of director R.B. Schlather’s radical staging of Handel’s opera seria masterpiece Orlando, which I had the good fortune to promote. For weeks, RB, his cast and musicians inhabited the very plain storefront Whitebox Gallery on Broome Street. Everything was open to the public. Throughout the afternoons a wide variety of people—music lovers, friends, and strangers who happened to pass by—dropped in, stayed for a while, and then went back to whatever they were doing. It was all quite low key, but as the days progressed the line between rehearsal and performance, and even the line between life and art began to disappear. It was magical. One of the regular onlookers was our daughter Clementine, who was seven at the time. She showed her emerging baroque soul by choosing this aria as her favorite. It’s mine, too.

Handel: “Amor e qual vento” from Orlando

Last year I had the pleasure of working with the young opera director RB Schlather and his ingenious storefront Handel opera trilogy at Whitebox Gallery just off the Bowery. The whole experience was unlike anything I had witnessed in the music world. It was something I will never forget—and I don’t think my 8yo daughter will either. For three weeks RB opened Orlando rehearsals to the public—by luring passersby with a TV in the front window that broadcast everything going on inside. The rehearsals were also streamed online, so you could see them anywhere.

Since I live just a few blocks from Whitebox, it was easy to run over—and several times I brought my daughter and her friends. One day, RB was working with soprano Anya Matanovic, who played Dorinda, on her aria “Amor e qual vento.” He had her sing it over and over, trying out all kinds of physically demanding and wild staging (note: hairspray and makeup application while singing, costume change, jumping on and off platforms…) until it became an absolute showstopper: an aria of transformation and female empowerment, where Anya got to channel all of her considerable charisma, confidence and sass as she turned from a nerdy innocent girl into a woman in total control, like wonder woman in the phone booth.

Anya was a true heroine, and the young girls were dazzled by her—but also by the aria she rehearsed repeatedly, with its delightful trills and ornamentation, which required a lot of stamina and technical brilliance. The tunes of Orlando haunted us for days (RB’s intention). We hummed them in the shower, at breakfast. We bought a recording of Orlando which my daughter still asks to listen to: Rene Jacobs and the B’Rock Orchestra, with Bejun Mehta (on Archiv). I have RB to thank for this new love of baroque opera. I grew up in a very musical family, but early music didn’t exist in our house. My mother, a pianist who led her own chamber music group, admitted to me that the sound of an early instrument made her ill! So here’s to being bitten by the baroque, sooner or later. Anthony Roth Costanzo put it perfectly, when I told him how hard we all fell for Orlando: “Forever Baroque!!”

Here is Dorinda’s aria (or the hairspray aria, as we call it at home) from Orlando, “Amor e qual vento,” sung by Rosa Mannion with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants:

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