Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs Alessandro Scarlatti's "Hagar and Ishmael Exiled"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presented Alessandro Scarlatti’s (1660-1725) oratorio “Agar et Ismaele esiliati” (Hagar and Ishmael Exiled) November 23rd 2010 at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. Dr. David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and conductor, directed the performance from the harpsichord. Soloists were mezzo-soprano Inbal Hever, sopranos Ye’ela Avital, Keren Motzeri and Anat Edri and bass-baritone Christian Immler (Germany).

Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorios span the period from 1683 to 1720, reflecting the development of opera of the time. Their texts are based mostly on hagiography (biography of saints or venerated persons) and the Bible. The early oratorios, “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled” (libretto: Giuseppe de Totis) being among them, represent the type of libretto and musical style most characteristic of the late 17th century. We enter the story of Abraham, Sara, Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis, chapter 21) to witness Abraham’s wife Sara insisting that Abraham banish the slave Hagar and her son Ishmael in order to protect their son Isaac’s inheritance. Ishmael was fathered by Abraham before Isaac’s birth, when Sara was still considered barren. Abraham, torn, reluctantly agrees to banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, where they almost die of thirst; in the end, on the point of death, they are saved by an angel. In this two-part oratorio - there are no choruses or large orchestral sections (after the overture) - Scarlatti created a compact, tightly constructed work. Many of the arias are accompanied by basso continuo only, creating intimate moments and emphasizing the verbal text. David Shemer, in his program notes, writes of “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled”, composed when Scarlatti was only 24 years old, as the product of the “amazingly profound psychological insight of such a young composer”.

Following the overture – a piece built of slow, brooding, foreboding sections giving listeners time to languish in the dissonances, breaking into energetic sections – Sara (Keren Motzeri) walks purposefully onto the stage. Motzeri’s performance is fluent, musical and technically masterful, her lively melismatic passages propelling her towards key notes and words. Exuding color, freshness and ease, she uses dynamics and melodic shape to create situations and emotions.

Inbal Hever is convincing, empathic and intense as Hagar – a woman at times resigned to her fate, at times angry - her vocal color pleasing, if a little understated at times. Accompanied by the lower stringed instruments, Hever portrays Hagar now falling into the depths of despair:
‘Here the rays of the sun
Are darts lit with death.
Ah, it seems that here heaven
Is ablaze with the fierce heat of the underworld…’

Ye’ela Avital’s portrayal of the child Ishmael was appealing and delicate, her singing floating and mellifluous. She and Hever communicate in their common fate, the tragedy of her role spiraling into the scene where Ishmael, dying of thirst in the desert, hallucinates and calls out. Avital makes use of small pauses to evoke her waning strength.
‘In these burning lands
I feel my strength succumb,
If heaven holds no relief for my torment..’

David Shemer speaks of Abraham as torn between his wife’s demands and his own feelings towards Hagar and Ishmael (his son); he considers Abraham to be the real victim of the tragedy. Christian Immler’s portrayal of Abraham is, indeed, fraught with suffering. His use of vocal color is gripping, depicting the different stages of Abraham’s complex predicament. No newcomer to the Israeli concert scene, Immler sings with conviction, his pleasing voice boasting a palette rich in colors and warmth.

Entering the hall from the back, young Israeli soprano Anat Edri’s appearance as the Angel swept the audience off its feet. Edri is expressive, competent, and confident, her creamy voice resonant and forthright, rich and effortless.

David Shemer’s vision of Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled” is one of many dimensions. Singers enter and leave the stage, providing the effect of movement and change. One’s eyes are, naturally, focused on the singers in such a performance, but that is not to say that the listener was not constantly aware of the finest of detail and the exquisitely soave elegance of each and every phrase played by the instrumentalists. The players were clearly aware of the fragile textures and details in the score; under Shemer’s direction, the JBO provided the ideal environment for high quality singing. A superb piece of musical drama, an unforgettable performance of the JBO and a treat for lovers of Baroque music at its best.

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