Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and soloists perform A.Scarlatti's "Hagar and Ishmael"

In celebration of the very recent issue of its recording of A.Scarlatti’s oratorio “Hagar and Ishmael”, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performed the work at its recent concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This writer attended the concert on December 29th 2014, at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Joining the string players of the JBO were soloists Avital Dery as Hagar, Tal Ganor – Ishmael, Keren Motseri – Sara, Yoav Weiss – Abraham and Adaya Peled as the Angel. Conducting the performance was the JBO’s founder and musical director David Shemer.

In his program notes, Shemer reminds us of Pope Innocent XI’s disapproval of opera in late 17th-century Rome, with opera-lovers shifting their attention to oratorio. Oratorios were usually performed as concerts, but, apart from that difference, artists really had enough freedom to satisfy the Roman aristocracy’s thirst for theatrical works. The subject of “Hagar and Ishmael” (1683) is the biblical story (Genesis, chapter 21) of Abraham, his wife Sara, her Egyptian slave Hagar and Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar. Because Sara had not managed to become pregnant, Sara suggested that her husband have a child by Hagar. But when Sara unexpectedly fell pregnant, giving birth to Isaac, she became jealous of Abraham’s older son, persuading Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael. Giuseppe de Totis weaves a libretto presenting spousal manipulation, paternal guilt and filial despair. Scarlatti’s sensitive and expressive treatment of the libretto, adding moral implications to the story, cannot but lure the listener into the fraught situation, also due to the timeless human forces playing out in this set of relationships. Add to these elements graceful recitatives, arias fuelled by fury and fire and, then, tender, dark arias probing and describing sentiments arising from the deepest parts of the human soul. The somewhat otherworldly character of the angel, appearing to save young Ishmael, who is about to die of thirst in the desert and promising him a prestigious future, breaks the tension of what is to be a tragic outcome, bringing the oratorio to a positive, elated conclusion.

Constructed in two parts, this (opera pretending to be an) oratorio has no chorus, nor are there significant orchestral sections; arias are accompanied by continuo or by orchestra, there are smooth-flowing recitatives and occasional duets. The soloists in this JBO performance retained the work’s tension with convincing immediacy. Soprano Keren Motseri depicted Sara as both tender and loving and as an obstinate, domineering, strong-willed woman. A captivating singer utilizing her beauty of sound, intelligence, temperament and fine vocal skills, she is as comfortable on stage as she is managing melismatic, dramatic passages. As Abraham, bass Yoav Weiss gave the convincing and heartfelt performance of a man whose soul is tragically conflicted. With timbral warmth and sympathy, he conveyed the great sadness of the situation:
‘Who does not know what pain is
Knows still that pain which exceeds
All others, that in the middle of the heart
Hides always in silence…’
Accompanied by ‘cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) and theorbo (Bari Moskovitz), this was a soul-searching moment where the audience might now start to ask itself where its allegiance lay. Avital Dery made for a superb Hagar: expressive, maternal, articulate, communicative and subtly dramatic, her well-rounded vocal sound reached out to the listener as she portrayed both the strength and the hopelessness of a mother in such a situation. These moments were all the more effective and moving with the dark timbre of lower strings:
‘The desire of a covetous heart
Has no limits or end.
Like a languishing soul in burning pain,
No abundance of fluid
Can extinguish the ceaseless craving
Of its impious thirst…’
Well suited to singing Baroque repertoire, soprano Tal Ganor displayed a deep understanding of the role of Ishmael. Never excessively dramatic or operatic, her depiction of the boy dying of thirst was understated yet profound, appealing and well within the boundaries of good taste. Unmannered and natural, her singing was expressive and superbly controlled. As the Angel, young soprano Adaya Peled created the effect of radiance and surprise to turn the plot around and pronounce that Ishmael had been “chosen by heaven
To propagate the empires of a vast people…” and that
“Violets bloom
After frost and cold”.

Here was an impressive home-grown line-up of soloists to join Maestro David Shemer and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a sensitive and highly convincing reading of “Hagar and Ishmael”. The instrumental playing was excellent; kudos to the continuo players for their sympathetic accompaniments.

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