by Michael Caruso

Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, will perform “Fantasie: Orchestral Storytelling and Imagination” on Saturday, Jan. 27, 8 p.m., in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Works by Georg Philipp Telemann, Francois Couperin, Jean-Fery Rebel, George Frideric Handel and Johann Sigismund Kusser will comprise the program.

Kusser, whose Orchestral Suite III will open the concert, was an early German exponent of the French compositional style developed at Versailles by Jean-Baptise Lully. Born in Italy, Lully emigrated to France and became the court composer for the “Sun King” Louis XIV, who made the French style in all the arts the dominating force throughout Europe during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Kusser’s Suite is divided into movements with such fanciful titles as “Sleep,” “Phantasms,” “Gladiators,” “Pulchinellas” and “Harlequins.”

Handel composed 42 operas and 29 oratorios, so his mastery of theatrical music has never been questioned. Alongside his magisterial “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and “Water Music,” he composed several sets of acclaimed concerti grossi and solo concerti. Tempesta will perform his Concerto Grosso in A minor, Opus 6, no. 4. The entire Opus 6 has been described as “an apotheosis of the baroque concerto…as well as the epitome of Handel’s art.”

Rebel was the composer for the chamber of King Louis XIV. He was also the first to compose ballet music in which the dancers were placed front-and-center rather than in supporting roles behind the singers. Rebel played an important part in integrating numerous Italian novelties into French traditional musical styles upon the death of Lully in 1687.

Couperin’s “Ritratto dell’Amore” (Portrait of Love) is rare in his output for having an Italian title and for offering musical delineations of emotions such as tenderness and liveliness. Telemann’s “Ouverture Burlesque” is set to bring the concert to its finale.

For ticket information visit www.tempestadimare.org or call 215-755-8776.

‘DAS RHEINGOLD’

The artistic fingerprint of K. James McDowell was everywhere apparent for the Academy of Vocal Arts’ production of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.” Not only is the East Falls resident the president and artistic director of the nation’s only full-scholarship graduate school focusing on vocal studies, but he is also the stage director of the mounting. The presentation opened Saturday, Jan. 20, in the school’s Helen Corning Warden Theater, 1920 Spruce St.

“Das Rheingold” (The Rhine Gold) is the first of the four operas that comprise “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung). Wagner (1813-83) wrote both the libretti and the music of the foursome between 1848 and 1874. The subsequent operas are “Die Walkure” (The Walkyrie), “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” (Twilight of the Gods). Together, the “Ring Cycle” is considered by many opera lovers to be the greatest of all examples of the art form, uniting vocal and choral writing with some of the most extravagant orchestral music ever written for the operatic stage.

Unlike his great Italian contemporary, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), whose operas keep the focus on the vocal line and use the orchestra to support it, Wagner always considered the voice to be one of several parts of the musical tapestry. He also considered the libretto to be another integral part of the operatic experience and was, therefore, unwilling to accept the hackneyed idiocies so prevalent in the books of 19th century Italian operas.

As a result, the libretti of all four operas of the “Ring Cycle” are the work of Wagner’s own hand – for better or worse. Depending upon ancient Nordic and Teutonic legends for inspiration, the “Ring Cycle” proposes societal concepts that were infamously employed by the Nazis to justify some of the most heinous practices in the history of the Western world. Wagner’s operas were among the favorites of no less a monster than Adolf Hitler. Performances of the “Ring Cycle” cannot take place without some cautionary notice being paid to these historical realities.

Due to limitations of space and finance, it would be impossible for AVA to mount a production of “Das Rheingold” – the simplest and shortest of the four – with a full symphony orchestra in support of the singers. And yet, considering the integral part Wagner’s operas play in the repertoire of any great opera house, it would be no less impossible for AVA not to include at least one or two of his operas in its curriculum every season or so. This is all the more true if, despite a simple piano accompaniment, the productions are fully staged.

The admirable compromise chosen by McDowell – a piano reduction of the orchestral score – worked beautifully Saturday evening. Longtime vocal master coach Luke Housner conjured up both gritty and sumptuous colors from the Steinway grand piano from which he conducted his singers. McDowell’s staging was straightforward yet visceral, Allen Doak’s lighting was darkly evocative of a frightening world of Nordic gods, giants and dwarfs, and Val Starr’s costumes were imaginatively definitive of character.

Returning to his alma mater, 2009 AVA alumnus Ben Wager gave a riveting portrayal of Wotan, king of the gods. He sang with menacing, dark-hued resonance, yet also projected Wotan’s vulnerability to his own vices and the catastrophes that lurk in their shadows. Hannah Ludwig was a commanding presence as Fricka, Wotan’s wife and the sister of Freia, the innocent he is willing to offer to the giants to build his fortress, Valhalla. Piotr Buszewski was a wily Loge, the underhanded operator Wotan dragoons for his dirty deals. He sang with impressive tonal projection and caught the slippery personality of his character.

Ethan Simpson was repulsively efficacious as Albrecht, the thief of the Rhine gold who kick-starts the plot into motion. Abraham Breton was contemptible yet sympathetic as Mime, who fashions the actual Ring of the Nibelung. Meryl Dominguez, Alexandra Raskazoof and Pascale Spinney sang splendidly as the Rhine maidens. Daniel Noyola and Brent Michael Smith were the towering giants. And Gabriela Flores was a mighty Erda, the goddess whose warnings about the danger of the Ring Wotan foolishly ignores.

“Das Rheingold” continues at AVA through Jan. 30. Visit www.avaopera.org or call 215-735-1685 for ticket information.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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