United States Mostly Mozart 10: Handel, In Tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Renata Pokupić (mezzo-soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 22.8.2013 (SSM).
Overture to Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724)
L’angue offeso mai riposa, from Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Ah! Whither should we fly…As with rosy steps the morn, from Theodora (1749)
Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op. 6, No. 12 (1739)
Where shall I fly? from Hercules (1744)
Overture to Theodora
Lord to Thee each night and day, from Theodora
Dopo notte, from Ariodante (1734)
Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op. 3, No. 2 (1734)
Svegliatevi nel core, from Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Encore: Dedicated to the memory of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Third movement (Musette) of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 6. (1739)
This tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is an acknowledgement of the mutual admiration between the late mezzo-soprano and New York City. In an interview shortly before her death in 2006, Lieberson said: “New York audiences are the most wonderful, albeit noisy and opinionated…They have taken me to their heart and I love them.” She is remembered by New Yorkers who attended her performances at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera; anyone who heard her will never forget her. The emotional commitment that she put into her characters, her down-to-earth naturalness and the effortlessness of her vocal technique can only be described as angelic.
The program’s vocal selections represented pieces for which Lieberson − who worked frequently with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment − was known. Unfortunately, mezzo Renata Pokupić was under the weather, and she bowed out at intermission. In the two arias she did perform her voice was lackluster, and it wasn’t helped by the muddiness of the orchestral accompaniment. Laurence Cummings’ enthusiasm and energy did not initially carry over to the orchestra which struggled at times to keep up with his frenetic gestures.
There seems to be an established practice among some period instrument groups equating speed with a successful presentation of Baroque style. While opinions are divided as to what the “real” Baroque tempo should be (with one musicologist even calling for a halving of all tempi), there is little doubt that the pacing of the two parts of an ouverture need to be slow and fast. The opening to Handel’s Giulio Cesare is a classic example of the ouverture as formalized by Lully. Its opening section should be played in a stately manner with emphasis on the dotted rhythms; the fugal second section should contrast sharply with the opening in tempo. Cummings started too quickly so that by the time the fugue arrived there was not enough room for the orchestra to accelerate. The string players struggled to keep up with his whirlwind style.
By the third work on the program, “Ah! Whither should we fly…As with rosy steps the morn,” Cummings’ pacing was slower: a necessity for this mournful aria. Anna Stéphany has a plush mezzo voice, better in the upper range, and she gave a soulful reading of one of Lieberson’s signature arias.
The final work in a compositional set is often the high point of the opus. Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B minor, the twelfth of Opus 6, is almost a gloss on a Brandenburg Concerto, with the concertino roles played here by solo violin, viola and cello. It has an affinity to the third Brandenburg whose brief transition to the last movement is mirrored in the fourth-movement Largo of Handel. Concertmaster Kati Debretzeni had the most challenging part, but she breezed through the toughest measures.
The aria “Where shall I fly” from Hercules requires a little bit of everything, from recitatives to long melismas and would be a true test of any singer’s ability. Despite her indisposition, Renata Pokupić worked through the aria’s complexities with admirable skill.
The second half of the program mirrored the first half in its selections of instrumental and vocal works. Cummings announced that Pokupić was unwell and that Anna Stéphany would sing all three scheduled arias. The audience was sympathetic, and the coolness of the orchestra and Cummings’ somewhat zealous leadership seemed to ease. Although the overture to Theodora was still too fast, the orchestra’s muddiness was gone.
Although Pokupić was originally scheduled to sing “Dope notte,” it was clear from the fact that Stéphany at times sang long passages without looking at the score in front of her that it’s an aria she knows well. It’s another Handel vocal twister, and Stéphany came through winningly. The long applause was well deserved.
Cummings continued at his speedy state with the Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, but the orchestra and conductor were more in sync. The orchestral members were also more aggressive so one actually heard distinct instrumental lines that had been glossed over in the earlier concerto.
The powerful and moving “Svegliatevi nel core” from Giulio Cesare vividly concluded the program, with singer, orchestra and conductor giving the extra push that was missing in the first half. It was enough to bring back the singers and conductor several times and allowed an encore in tribute to Lorraine Hunter Lieberson. The pleasant, pastorale-like Musette from Handel’s Op. 6, No.6 brought the performance to a fitting conclusion.