Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Acis & Galatea Notes

Ars Lyrica performs Handel's "Acis & Galatea" this Thursday in Bryan, Friday in Austin, and Sunday in Houston, TX. Synopsis and notes on the program are as follows:

Handel's Acis & Galatea, known during the composer’s lifetime as “the most perfect work” he had yet written, is the pinnacle of pastoral opera. It is peopled with happy shepherds and nymphs who celebrate the simplicity of rural life...until a monster arrives. Our production transports us to a serene, sultry day in an exotic watery paradise. On a deserted beach, a group of friends discover a chest full of island “treasures,” and slowly, a story unfolds. A beautiful water nymph conceals her divinity in the hope that she may enjoy true love with a mere shepherd. Her great beauty cannot be disguised, however, and it incites a fiery passion in the island monster, Polyphemus, who kills her shepherd lover. Death, of course, is not the end, and Galatea draws on her power to transform Acis into a flowing river whose ever-murmuring waters speak eternally of their love.

The poets John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes together fashioned the libretto from John Dryden’s translation of the classic story, as related in the thirteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Handel’s score begins with a jaunty orchestral sinfonia, which leads directly to a cheerful opening chorus. Despite the jolly atmosphere, Galatea feigns unhappiness. Pleading with the birds to quiet their “thrilling strains,” she observes that their twittering (realized by a sopranino recorder in her first aria) only makes her desire for Acis stronger. Acis, meanwhile, has to be reminded by his companions Damon and Corydon that their first responsibility is to their flocks. Ignoring this sage advice, he becomes totally entranced with Galatea, who in turn offers her own reflections on their love. Both then join together in ecstatic duet, bringing Part I to a close.

Part II opens with a warning that something terrible is about to happen. When the monster Polyphemus enters, all the earth trembles before him. His wooing of Galatea is unsubtle but wonderfully colorful and even ironic in Handel’s clever hands (listen for the same recorder that Galatea sought to quiet in Part I). When Galatea spurns his advances, the monster becomes impatient, vowing to wage war if necessary to win her. Though Damon urges restraint, Acis counters with a shrill call to arms and ignores Corydon’s warning that he is being foolhardy. Galatea attempts to reassure Acis of her fidelity, and they both forswear all others, only to be interrupted repeatedly by Polyphemus, who has decided that Acis must go. And so the hapless shepherd is crushed by the monster’s heavy stone, leaving Galatea and her companions to ponder the fragility of human relationships.

This magical work was first given in 1718 at Cannons, the palatial residence of the Duke of Chandos, for whom Handel worked as court composer for about a year. At its Cannons première, Acis & Galatea was presented as a concert piece (or masque) in front of a painted backdrop, with five costumed singers reading from their books. Handel’s pastoral was not the first musical dramatization of this ancient fable. Charpentier, Lully, Bononcini, and the English composer John Eccles had all tried their hand at it before Handel composed, in 1708, a serenata entitled Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Owing perhaps to the different language and new circumstances at Cannons, Handel’s 1718 return to this tale produced an entirely new work. In the 1730s and 1740s he made various changes to Acis & Galatea, including additional arias (some in Italian) as well as new orchestrations and rearrangements of movements from the original. Acis & Galatea enjoyed more performances during Handel’s lifetime than any other of his works and remained popular well into the 19th century: it was the first of four works by Handel orchestrated by Mozart in the late 1780s for performances in Vienna at Gottfried van Swieten’s musical salons; Mendelssohn too re-orchestrated and performed it, and Meyerbeer once attempted a staged version. A relatively compact work filled with inspired writing, it remains Handel’s most accessible work for the stage. © Tara Faircloth & Matthew Dirst

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"A Viennese New Year" program and notes

"A Viennese New Year" program and notes:

Christoph Willibald von Gluck Duet: “Va, ma tremo/Ah, mio ben”
(1714-1787) from Ezio, Act I

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer Balletto a 4 — Die Fechtschule
(c1620-1680) (The Musical Sword Fight)
Aria 1
Aria 2
Bader Aria

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Aria: “Una voce sento al core”
(1756-1791) from La finta giardiniera, Act II

Aria: “Dolce d’amor compagna”
from La finta giardiniera, Act II

Johann Joseph Fux Concerto Le dolcezze e l’amerezze della notte
(1660-1741) Der Nachtwächter
Menuette & Trio
Fantasie notturne

W. A. Mozart Recitativo: “In un istante”
Aria: Parto m’affretto”
from Lucio Silla, Act II

Aria: “Va pure ad altri in braccio”
from La finta giardiniera, Act III

Johann Strauss II Pizzicato-Polka

W. A. Mozart Duet: “D’Elisio in sen m’attendi/Sposa adorata”
from Lucio Silla, Act I

Since the invention of opera around 1600, leading composers and intellectuals have attempted, once a generation or so, to cleanse their art of the excesses of their predecessors. So it was with Christoph Willibald von Gluck, whose “reform operas” have little of the plot complexities and decorative surface textures of Baroque opera. Instead, Gluck favored a more restrained, naturalistic kind of expression. His 1750 setting of the Metastasian libretto Ezio ennobles a story of revenge and deceit at the highest levels of Roman society. The duet “Va, ma tremo/Ah, mio ben” occurs at the end of Act I, as the general Ezio and his fiancée Fulvia realize that the Emporer’s jealousy may put an end not only to their wedding plans, but to Ezio’s life. The lovers thus pray fervently to the gods to “protect their faithfulness and love.”

A comparable situation causes the two characters of the final duet, from Mozart’s Lucio Silla (Milan, 1772), to express similar sentiments. This story, likewise borrowed from Roman history, includes a pair of lovers who get caught up in the intrigues of a jealous dictator. In this moving duet from the end of Act I, Giunia finds Cecilio, whom she feared dead, and the two express their happiness in tears of joy. Giunia’s great second act scene, part of the second group of arias on tonight’s program, gives a hint of the happy ending to come, though at this point in the drama the heroine is contemplating suicide, thinking she will not be able to rescue Cecilio from the wicked Lucio Silla’s prison.

The remaining three arias on this program are all taken from La finta giardiniera (The Pretend Garden-Girl), an opera Mozart wrote for a Munich theater in 1775. Its plot centers on the relationship between Count Belfiore and the Marchioness Violante, who assumes a disguise as the garden girl Sandrina in order to escape from the violent and abusive count. Sandrina sings “Una voce sento al core” at a particularly delicate moment in the middle of Act II, as she attempts to summon some affection (without success) for her new master, the Podestà, who has just declared himself enamored. “Dolce d’amor compagna,” the flip side of this emotional coin, is sung just a few minutes later by Ramiro, whose love Arminda foolishly rejects; his aria is an ode to unrequited love. Ramiro’s final aria “Va pure ad altri in braccio,” by contrast, is a bit of classic operatic rage, in which he bluntly tells the ungrateful Arminda where she can go.

Around these vocal works are grouped several evocative instrumental selections. Schmelzer depicts a fencing lesson within the parameters of the musical suite, complete with various dances and a “barber’s song” (“Bader Aria”) for the poor fellow whose job it was to bandage up the participants. One wonders whether such a work accompanied some kind of elaborate court ballet with abundant fencing, on the model of Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (which Ars Lyrica and the New York Baroque Dance Company presented here last June).

Johann Joseph Fux, a figure known more for his influential Gradus ad Parnassum (The Ascent to Parnassus), a textbook on counterpoint, was court composer to Emporer Leopold I. During his decades of service to the Viennese court, he composed in virtually every genre, including opera, oratorio, and instrumental works of all kinds. His concerto Le dolcezze e l’amerezze della note (The Sweetness and Tenderness of the Night) is really a suite. It begins solemnly, with a cantus-firmus like “call of the watchman,” but continues in a lighter vein, with characteristic dances and unpredictable “nighttime fantasie.”

A Viennese New Year would not be complete without at least a bit of Strauss, and so — on period instruments, no less — the famous “Pizzicato-Polka” of Johann Strauss II. With(out) our Baroque bows. Happy New Year, one and all!

Monday, December 3, 2012

"A Viennese New Year" at Zilkha Hall on Dec 31

The end of the year is fast approaching, and with it the obligatory Christmas shopping, holiday parties, and — most important — big plans for New Year's Eve. On Dec 31 at the Hobby Center, Ars Lyrica offers Houston's classiest New Year's Eve celebration, complete with concert and gala reception to ring in the new year. "A Viennese New Year" features two amazing singers: soprano Lauren Snouffer and countertenor John Holiday plus the Ars Lyrica ensemble in festive music by composers from the Viennese royal court. Our look at elegant old Vienna — where classical music's celebrations of New Year's Eve began — includes arias and duets by Mozart and Gluck, instrumental works by Fux and Schmeltzer, plus one or two New Year's Eve surprises, including a polka by Johann Strauss! The concert begins at 9 pm in the Hobby Center's intimate Zilkha Hall, and the gala follows in the Sarofim Hall Grand Lobby – a perfect place to mingle, sample the buffet, sip champagne, and pick up that last holiday present for either yourself or a loved one at our annual silent auction.

To purchase tickets for the concert and gala reception, visit Ars Lyrica or call the Hobby Center box office at 713-315-2525. Looking forward to celebrating the new year with Mozart, Strauss, and you!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Ars Lyrica's latest recording — of Domenico Scarlatti's comic intermezzo "La Dirindina" and his chamber cantata "Pur nel sonno" — has just been released on the Sono Luminus label. It can be purchased from Ars Lyrica or from dozens of websites, including Amazon.com. Featured singers include mezzo Jamie Barton, tenor Joseph Gaines, baritone Brian Shircliffe (all in "La Dirindina") and soprano Céline Ricci (in "Pur nel sonno"). The disc also includes two Scarlatti sonatas, arranged for mandolin and harpsichord, which feature lutenist Richard Savino and yours truly on harpsichord.

"La Dirindina" is a musical farce, and like all intermezzi, it’s both comic and compact. The story concerns the wily and but gifted young singer Dirindina and her teacher Don Carissimo, whose interest in his pupil is more than a little untoward. As the curtain goes up, a singing lesson is underway, and it is clear that neither student nor teacher are very interested the day’s lesson plan. Dirindina’s independent spirit and her ability to sing (when she wants to) annoy Don Carissimo, who is further vexed by the appearance of Liscione, a famous castrato who brings some surprising news: the Milan theater wants to engage Dirindina as its prima donna. Don Carissimo flies into a rage, stammering his way through a highly amusing and inventive aria, only to see that his pretty pupil is now flirting openly with the castrato. An obligatory ensemble, with Dirindina and Liscione in musical and dramatic opposition to Don Carissimo, brings Part I to a close.

Part II opens with the unctuous Liscione plying Dirindina with a little minuet, which manages simultaneously to flatter the young singer’s ego while sending up the fashionable but sentimental manners of the aristocracy. Dirindina responds with perhaps the oddest aria in the work, full of syncopations and serpentine melodies that cheekily invoke various bodily fluids, with which she promises to seduce the Milanese public. The ensuing “play within a play,” a mock enactment of the tragic Dido’s rejection of the feckless Aeneas, is witnessed by Don Carissimo, who fails to get the joke and thinks that his ward is not only with child but ready to commit suicide. As with all good comedies, the joke’s on him: the finale is both outrageous and touching, as the capon and the hen are joined in hand by a thoroughly confused old man.

The text of "Pur nel sonno" is delivered from the unlucky suitor’s point of view, and from the outset, the mood is dark: an Introduzione in two parts—something one expects at the head of a full-length opera or oratorio, but rarely in a cantata—is by turns aggressive and pensive. The sinewy first aria introduces a world-weary lover, one rejected by the unattainable Phyllis but unable to forget her, even in sleep; his passion remains sadly one-sided. A highly dramatic recitative follows, as the protagonist’s dream veers from lovely visions to fear and shame. The realization that he’ll never be free again is given full vent in a tour-de-force concluding aria with abundant vocal fireworks.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

New harpsichord for St Philip

Just arrived at St Philip Presbyterian Church in Houston, where I play the organ: a new single-manual Flemish-style harpsichord, built for St Philip by John Phillips of Berkeley, CA, after a 1768 instrument by Albert Delin of Tournai. The Delin is an exceptionally versatile historical model, appropriate for a wide range of music in solo and ensemble situations. Its decoration, in particular the painted soundboard with its abundant flora and fauna, is entirely in keeping with the Flemish and French traditions of harpsichord building in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Come hear the inaugural program on the instrument, featuring yours truly and violinist Kurt Johnson on Friday, July 27 at 7:30 pm. St Philip is at 4807 San Felipe, Houston 77056.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Heaven & Hell

Looking forward to "Heaven and Hell," Ars Lyrica's 2011-12 season finale on June 8 and 10 at the Hobby Center. Here are notes on the program, from myself and Catherine Turocy, Artistic Director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, with whom we're collaborating on an all-Monteverdi program. This is not to be missed: an extraordinary opportunity to witness world première stagings of some of Monteverdi's most exceptional works!

Over the course of an exceptionally long career, Claudio Monteverdi composed some 250 madrigals that range from the comic and satirical to the plangent and war-like. This large and diverse repertory, published in some nine books between 1587 and 1651, is the best witness to the composer’s idiosyncratic and constantly evolving ideas about musical composition. Unusually for their time, these madrigals served as neither domestic music nor polyphonic showpieces but instead as highly expressive, supple works in the modern (mixed) style for professional singers. Because an intense focus on the words is this repertory’s hallmark, line-by-line translations will be given as surtitles throughout the performance.

From the Madrigals of Love and War (1638) our program includes four works, two from each half of this singular collection. Love and war are never very far apart in this poetry, thus most of these “madrigals” freely mix the stile concitato, in which instruments and singers simulate the sound of war by repeated hammering of the same notes (which Monteverdi invented), with sections in either the “languid” or the “temperate” styles. As the composer himself explained: “When [the poetry] speaks about war, it must imitate war; when it speaks about peace, imitate peace; about death, death, and so on.” Both halves of the program begin with settings of sonnets, one by Marini the other by Petrarch, and end with dramatized performances two more expansive tales: the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the Ballo delle Ingrate.

The classic Italian sonnet typically comprises fourteen lines, arranged as pair of four-line strophes and another pair of three-line strophes. In Altri canti di marte and Hor ch’el ciel e la terra, Monteverdi underlines the shift from the first to the second half of each poem by setting them as independent sections. The former begins by juxtaposing Mars (the god of war) and Love, whose struggle is the subject of the first half of this evening’s program. Love, as the second part of Marini’s sonnet reminds us, may “give death to the heart,” but it also “gives life to my song.” By contrast Hor ch’el ciel begins with a whisper, since “heaven, earth, and wind are silent,” only to burst to life as the poet “wakes, thinks, burns, and weeps” with the memory of the beloved. Memory, as it turns out, is the enemy of more than just Petrarch’s muse: it is the eternal companion of the unhappy souls in hell who are the subject of the Ballo delle Ingrate.

First performed during the Venetian Carnival season of 1624 in the presence of the “best and noblest inhabitants of the town,” who “wept and were enraptured at this new style” (or so Monteverdi tells us), the Combattimento is based a portion of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberate (Jerusalem Delivered). Set against the backdrop of the First Crusade, a forbidden love has grown between Tancredi, a Christian knight, and Clorinda, a Muslim maiden-warrior. Disguised as a man, she finds herself cut off from her fellow Saracens, and encounters Tancredi when both are battle-weary. They fight vigorously, disregarding all rules of combat: “rage causes every knightly art to be forgotten,” according to Tasso. It is not clear whether Clorinda has recognized Tancredi, but after two bloody encounters, she begs her opponent to baptize her so that she may die a Christian. As he pulls off her hood, Tancredi recognizes her as his lover and weeps as she dies.

Monteverdi’s audience would have been familiar with the story of Tancredi and Clorinda and would have known of the complex and deep love between the fated couple, who (like Romeo and Juliet) came from warring families. Through its detailed evocation of passion and conflict, this musical “combat” tells a universal story, one magnified by the gestures, attitudes and breath of dancers. The score consists mostly of simple narration; direct speech between the two protagonists is brief. Monteverdi instructs the narrator to pronounce the text clearly and directs that the work should be performed with the actors depicting the story in steps and gestures, with strict observance of tempo, beat, and step in a kind of pantomime. His description of the combat, graphically illustrated in the music, is matched by the actions of dancers who are the doubles of the singing Tancredi and Clorinda in this production. In perhaps the most striking departure from the typical emphasis on vocal text painting in the madrigal genre, most of the pictorial effects in this work come from the instrumental accompaniment.

Il Ballo delle Ingrate (The Ballet of the Ungrateful Ladies), set to a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, was first performed in Mantua in 1608 as part of the wedding celebrations for Francesco Gonzaga (the son of Monteverdi’s patron Duke Vincenzo) and Margaret of Savoy. Both Vincenzo and Francesco Gonzaga as well as other members of the court took part in the dancing—an odd fact, given that the dance roles seem to be for only women. According to the score, the stage set consists of a Hell’s Mouth (the entrance to the Underworld). Venus and Cupid visit Pluto, King of the Underworld, and complain that Cupid’s arrows are no longer effective on the proud ladies of Mantua, who are scorning their lovers. Cupid asks Pluto to bring the spirits of the ungrateful women who rejected love up from the Underworld to show what fate awaits those who spurn love and marriage. Pluto agrees and the spirits emerge.

The inspiration for the choreography came from Federico Follino, a Mantuan courtier, who gives an eyewitness account of the première. His description of the costumes—“like ashes mixed with flashing sparks; and thus one saw the dresses, and likewise the cloaks (which hung from their shoulders in a very bizarre manner), embroidered with many flames made of silk and gold, so well arranged that everyone judged that they were burning”—combined with his description of the movement suggest a theatrical interpretation after the manner of the morality play. Follino writes that “they did a ballo so beautiful and delightful, with steps, movements and actions now of grief and now of desperation, and now with gestures of pity and now of scorn, sometimes embracing each other as if they had tears of tenderness in their eyes, now striking each other swollen with rage and fury. They were seen from time to time to abhor each other’s sight and to flee each other in frightened manners, and then to follow each other with threatening looks, coming to blows with each other, asking pardon and a thousand other movements, represented with such affect and with such naturalness that the hearts of the onlookers were left so impressed that there was no one in the theater who did not feel his heart move and be disturbed in a thousand ways at the changing of their passions.” (With thanks to Sarah Edgar, dancer/researcher with the NYBDC, who brought this eyewitness account to our attention.) This production, then, acknowledges that Monteverdi and his team were on the cutting edge of a new form of theater based on ancient Greek drama: the Ballo was created one year after L’Orfeo, favola in musica, his first opera.

¬— Matthew Dirst and Catherine Turocy

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Festival de Musica Barroca in San Miguel

A number of Ars Lyrica regulars -- including yours truly -- made the trek to beautiful San Miguel de Allende (pictured here) for the annual Festival de Musica Barroca in March. This festival, whose artistic director is our own Barry Sills for the Camerata Ventapane, included two programs with a number of Houston-based musicians, including the Houston Bach Choir. We repeated one of these programs at the Biblioteca Lerdo de Tejada in Mexico City (also pictured here), and did a command performance in Léon for the pope -- who took too much sun that morning and chose to rest instead! Nevermind, the program was much appreciated by a capacity crowd of Catholic prelates and government officials, and we're already planning several performances of Handel's "Acis and Galatea" for next year, in Houston and in Mexico. If you've never been to San Miguel, you should plan on joining us next year for one of the best-kept secrets in the Baroque music world: it's gorgeous, peaceful, and the music-making well worth the trip!