by Michael Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, celebrated Choral Evensong Sunday, Feb. 12. The musical program chosen by music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway included choral pieces the church’s choir will sing during its July residency in London at both St. Paul’s Cathedral and the “original” Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

The afternoon’s “surprise” score was Leo Nestor’s “Jesu Dulcis Memoria” (“Jesus the very thought of you”), here sung by St. Paul’s choir in the original Latin with an idiomatic feel for the language that should be the envy of nearly every local Roman Catholic parish choir. Nestor, a longtime member of the music faculty at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., evokes medieval plainsong at the foundation of this unaccompanied anthem.

The women chant the opening line. When the men respond, the women surround their melodic line with clouds of dissonant harmonies that delay their final resolutions until the score’s conclusion. Fritsch-Hemenway’s direction was supple and expressive. Crescendos built from soft to loud and then receded back again in seamless diminuendos. The singing unfolded from the back of the church and rolled forward to the front in waves of sound that caressed the ear.

For the traditional pairings of “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittus,” Fritsch-Hemenway selected those two movements from Sir Herbert Howells’ rarely performed “Evening Service for St. Peter’s Church, Westminster (London).” They form a complementary duo. The “Magnificat,” quoting the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, begins with a short organ introduction and then the women’s voices; the “Nunc Dimittis,” quoting Simeon, also begins with a short organ intro and then the men’s voices.

Both then open up into complex yet accessible choral counterpoint that interacts with the organ accompaniment to explicate their respective texts: “My soul doth magnify the Lord” in the former and “Lord, now lettest they servant depart in piece” for the latter. Both conclude with similarly voiced settings of the “Glory be to the Father.” Fritsch-Hemenway elicited singing from his choir that was immaculately tuned, flawlessly blended and impressively colored for dramatic effect.

The anthem at the Offertory was Moses Hogan’s arrangement of the traditional spiritual, “We shall walk through the valley in peace.” Hogan’s subtle harmonies and flowing counterpoint came together in a work of sublime simplicity. It was sung with moments of dynamic splendor balanced against hushed whispers so that its remembrances of a steadier, more hopeful time rang with particular potency Sunday afternoon.

The service began with a superb reading of Cesar Franck’s “Chorale No. 1 in E major” by organ scholar Joseph Russell.

ROSSINI’S ‘TANCREDI’

Opera Philadelphia opened its production of Giocchino Rossini’s “Tancredi” Friday evening, Feb. 10, in the Academy of Music. The performance was so well conceived and efficaciously presented that I, for one, find it hard to believe that mountings of this early opus are as rare as they are.

Based on a libretto by Gaetano Rossi, based on Voltaire’s 1760 play of the same name, “Tancredi” received its premiere in February of 1813 at Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Within two months, however, Rossini had his librettist rewrite the end of the story to more closely adhere to Voltaire’s unhappy resolution rather than the stock happy finale typical of Italian opera at the time. It’s this version that Opera Philadelphia is presenting.

Set in the late Middle Ages amid the battles between the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire and the Saracens, “Tancredi” offers the normal operatic mix-up of family feuds and misinterpreted letters that result in the temporary thwarting of true love. In the case of “Tancredi,” however, the straightening out of those tangled motivations comes too late for the title character and his beloved Amenaide to live happily ever after. Tancredi, after winning a major battle and discovering that Amenaide didn’t betray him, dies of his wounds in her arms.

Although Rossini was only 21 years old when he composed the score for “Tancredi,” his sixth opera, he was already the master of dramatic form, instrumental invention and vocal lyricism and bravura that immediately placed and has kept him at the top of the roster of operatic composers. He is the first of Italy’s “big five” – along with Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and Puccini – and his operas continue to be among the most popular in the repertoire.

In “Tancredi,” one can hear every one of the characteristics that explain that enduring popularity. The score establishes and maintains a narrative arch that is sustained through evocative instrumental writing and highlighted by exquisitely written arias, duets, ensembles and choruses that throb with excitement and glow with polished vocalism.

Opera Philadelphia’s production of “Tancredi” was more than up to the mark of proving that this is one of those rare, overlooked gems that deserves regular staging. Music director Corrado Rovaris conducted both his singers and his players with technical expertise placed at the service of stylistic integrity. Emilio Sagi’s stage direction was focused and convincing. Daniel Bianco’s sets and Pepa Ojanguren’s costumes were simple and consistent.

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe essayed the trouser title role with stentorian vocal amplitude and a commanding dramatic presence that delineated both Tancredi’s stature and torture. Although there were occasional gritty timbres at the bottom register of her range, there was nary a bump in the “passaggio” from the low chest tones to the high head tones. While Blythe may never replace the incomparable Marilyn Horne as the ideal mezzo-soprano, she’s certainly the finest of this generation.

Soprano Brenda Rae’s voice might be a trifle small for an opera house as large as the Academy of Music (which seats 2,900 when the pit is in use), but she sang Amenaide’s high-flying coloratura with dazzling agility. Mezzo Allegra De Vita, a current student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, sang and acted beautifully as Isaura, Amenaide’s devoted friend. Tenor Michele Angelini triumphed over his stratospheric vocal lines as Argirio, Amenaide’s troubled father. And bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, an AVA alumnus, was splendid as the oily Orbazzano, happy to execute Amenaide if he can’t have her.

“Trancredi” continues in the Academy of Music through Feb. 19. Call 215-732-8400 or visit www.operaphila.org.

Contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

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