Saturday, March 14, 2015

Andrew Parrott and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in Stradella's "San Giovanni Battista"

For its sixth subscription concert of the 2014-2015 season, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (founder/director David Shemer) chose to take its audiences into the complexities of the story and values of Alessandro Stradella’s (1639-1682) “San Giovanni Battista” (St. John the Baptist). Directing and conducting the work from the positif organ was the JBO’s honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK). Vocal soloists were Hadas Faran-Asia, Alon Harari, Yair Polishook, Shira Agmon and Antonio Orsini (Italy); those making up the chorus were Lucie Bloch, Shira Agmon, Antonio Orsini and Yoav Weiss. This writer attended the performance in the Mary Natheniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 9th, 2015.

While San Giovanni Battista is categorized as an oratorio, with its biblical theme and static staging of the soloists, it departs from the oratorio form in other ways: firstly, it is sung in Italian and not Latin and the course of its plot spirals in a way more characteristic of opera than of the oratorio. Here is a mixed-genre theatrical work, offering duets, 5-voiced madrigals and dialogue-arias. The librettist, a Sicilian priest Girardo Ansaldi, did away with having a narrator, his focus rather being on exchanges between Herod and John the Baptist. It is possible that Corelli might have been one of the violinists in the work’s first performance in 1657. A native of Rome, Alessandro Stradella’s reputation rested largely on his pioneering role in the development of the concerto grosso, but he composed operas and other stage works, oratorios and other church music, hundreds of cantatas and 27 instrumental works. His personal life, however, took a scandalous course, with an attempt to embezzle money from the church in 1669, affairs he engaged in with noble ladies, an unsuccessful attempt on his life, a later attempt finally doing the job, as he met his death by a hired assassin on the Piazza Bianchi in Genoa. Interestingly, considering Stradella’s personal reputation, when Pope Clement X declared 1675 as a Holy Year, Stradella was chosen to compose one of the 14 oratorios for the year. It goes without saying that such a composer’s taste for a plot would not be for the faint-hearted. Although some sources clain that Stradella’s music was never performed, at least two popular novels and three operas were composed around the story of his notorious life.

The biblical story Stradella uses takes some strange turns from the original. Text sheets in Italian and English were distributed to the audience, albeit bristling with typographical errors. The work opened with arias and recitatives, in which Giovanni (countertenor Alon Harari), addressing the audience in a relaxed manner, articulately took his leave from the “friendly woods…of tranquil peace”. Emerging pleasingly bright in timbre, the role at times seemed placed slightly too low for Harari. Opera tenor and ensemble singer Antonio Orsini, performing in Israel for the first time, is a true find. As the king’s counselor, he skillfully wound his lush, silky voice around the texts, bringing each gesture to life, also blending superbly with Hadas Faran-Asia and Yair Polishook. One just wanted to drink in each lush, mellifluous sound.
‘Let it never happen that such sweet servitude should disperse
Nor that the heart should turn elsewhere and my king no longer love.’

A new local face was mezzo soprano Shira Agmon, in the minor role of the Mother, a young singer of fresh, unmannered expression. And then there is the wily Salome. Soprano Hadas Faran-Asia presents her initially as cold and calculating. As the work progresses, she launches into more intense emotional expression, ever sweetly and winningly feminine, engaging in the florid singing of the role of the manipulative woman. As to baritone Yair Polishook’s performance, the role of Herod was just made for him: authoritative, powerful, imposing, wicked and revengeful, this fine baritone singer negotiated the whole large vocal range with alacrity, as he presented Herod’s rising ego, lust and weakness. Polishook and Faran-Asia’s final duet, with its conflicting agendas, all occurring together, is intelligent writing on Stradella’s part, the work ending with an unresolved chord.

Stradella had considered “San Giovanni Battista” his best work. It was the composer’s first work to be performed in the 20th century (with Maria Callas playing Salome). Musically the work offers new ideas, such as little contrast between recitatives and arias, with several recitatives accompanied by the orchestra, in addition to the concerto grosso effect, not to speak of the composer’s unconventional use of chromatics (representing happiness!) Maestro Andrew Parrott brought out the strange and wonderful musical elements of this work and the interesting partnering of text and music, leading the JBO players in fresh, vital and crisp performance. Here was a different, less familiar and wonderful work to appear on the local Baroque concert scene and how lively and rewarding an experience it was!

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