by Michael Caruso
Romanian-born Valentin Radu conducted his period instruments ensemble, Camerata Ama Deus, in their final concert of the 2012-13 season Friday evening, May 31, in the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The program, entitled “Baroque Spring,” drew a small audience to hear music by Bach, Telemann and Marcello.
Radu assembled an interesting roster of pieces, not least of which was a “Concerto for Flute, Violin & Harpsichord” by Bach that I had never even heard of in all my years of reviewing local concerts since 1976. Other scores by Bach included the “Concerto for Two Violins in D minor” and the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 2 in F major. The program also featured two works by Telemann, the “Concerto for Recorder in G minor” and the “Suite for Trumpet in G major,” plus one by Marcello, “Concerto for Oboe in C minor.” On paper, the concert looked great. In performance, however, it sounded less than that.
The “Concerto for Flute, Violin & Harpsichord” isn’t originally a concerto for three solo instruments and ensemble at all. Its first and third movements are “adapted” from a “Prelude & Fugue in A minor” for solo harpsichord while its middle movement comes from a “Trio Sonata for Organ in D minor.” Bach often intended such works for personal pleasure rather than public performance. Their temperament is often intimate rather than brilliant. And they’re often more extensive developmentally than those written for concert events.
Matters were made all the more problematic by the personnel playing the solo parts. Only violinist Thomas DiSarlo hit the right tone. There was no flutist, only recorder player Rainer Beckman, whose instrument proved itself too pale to maintain its place in the texture. And harpsichordist Bronwyn Fix-Keller played a small-voiced one-manual (keyboard) instrument intended for use within an ensemble or at home but certainly not for a solo part in a concerto. The result was an unbalanced reading that was a far cry from period authenticity.
Much the same can be written about Elin Frazier’s rendition of Telemann’s “Suite for Trumpet.” It was originally conceived for a trumpet without valves, as was the case in the baroque period of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But Frazier played an instrument that very definitely had valves and oddly enough just didn’t sound right.
Far better were the performances given Marcello’s “Concerto for Oboe” and Bach’s Second “Brandenburg” Concerto. Sarah Davol was the superb soloist in the former, and Radu led the latter with consummate verve and stylish sophistication.
Opera Philadelphia is bringing its 2012-13 season to a conclusion with a masterful production of Thomas Ades’ “Powder Her Face.” Based on the scandalous and ultimately sad life of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, and composed in 1995 to a provocative libretto by Philip Hensher, “Powder Her Face” continues in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater June 14 and 16.
Known as the “Dirty Duchess,” Campbell was divorced by her husband, the Duke of Argyll, after his discovery of her rampant infidelity. It apparently mattered little to the British legal system that the Duke was found to have been only a tad more faithful to his own wedding vows than his wife, because it was the Duchess who was on the receiving end of hypocritical vilification at the time of their 1963 divorce proceedings, which were replete with damning photographs of the Duchess in imaginative situations of sexual license with all sorts of attractive young men.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone who regularly attends productions of contemporary operas when I write that Ades responded to Hensher’s libretto with music that is less than melodically or harmonically reassuring or romantic. His score strikes a dissonant tone from the start and maintains it with only rare exception from start to finish. Yet just as Hensher’s libretto is theatrically riveting, Ades’ score is musically compelling, delineating the narrative with pointed timbres and scintillating rhythms.
But it’s not consistently well written for the voice. There are four singers in the opera, but only one sings only one role, that of a soprano for the Duchess. The other three vocalists take on various parts in the story, with only that for the tenor equally set in a way in which a singer can efficaciously deliver the words he’s singing. For the most part, the vocal writing for both the bass and the other soprano renders the text indecipherable because the former is too low and the latter is too high. It’s as though Ades took advantage of the regular use of supertitles to set words in a manner no Broadway musical composer would ever inflict on an audience. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I find that simply lazy.
Soprano Patricia Schuman was stupendous Sunday afternoon as the Duchess, literally singing her heart out in a performance that was both imperious and poignant, dismissive and pleading, voracious and pathetic.
For ticket information call 215-893-1018 or visit www.operaphila.org.