By R.M Campbell
Arguably the most ambitious exploration of Handel ever held in Seattle — the American Handel Festival — opened Friday night with soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian singing music written for the famed Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
Along with J.S. Bach, Handel is one of the twin towers of Baroque music. It is a mountain top, rather mountain range, well worth time spent in it and gazing upon it. That is exactly what this festival aims to do via 30 performances of music by the master and his contemporaries with more than 25 organizations, such as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra Friday night, in attendance. In addition to orchestral music there will performances of his chamber opera “Acis and Galatea” and the oratorio “Esther,” as well as Bach’s “St. John’s Passion” and all manner of novelties that should attract a wide range of listeners. The American Handel Society, founded in 1981, held the the festival in its early days on the campus of the University of Maryland. Subsequently, it has gone on tour, this year to Seattle, organized by the energetic and informed Marty Ronish, who lives in Edmonds, but enjoys a national presence.
“Songs of Cleopatra” is part of the symphony’s Basically Baroque Series. The orchestra is stripped to the essentials, some semblance of historic style enforced (how different from 20 years ago). Often early music specialists are imported for the podium. On Friday, and Saturday night, one of the best, Nicholas McGegan, filled that bill.
The fact and fiction surrounding the great queen has never been far from the public consciousness. That is particularly so today with Stacy Schiff’s telling and informative current biography. Elliott Bay Book Store on Capitol Hill has plenty of copies the last time I checked. The music for the Cleopatra part of the program ranged from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” which Seattle Opera produced a few seasons ago, to some of Handel’s contemporaries, all German and none well-known: Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Adolf Hasse and Johann Mattheson. All of it found the queen unhappy, and facing defeat and death.
There was a great deal of coloratura music, part of it seemingly mindless, like Graun’s “Tra le procelle assorto” from “Cleopatra e Cesare” and Hasse’s “Morte col fiero aspetto” from “Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra,” or so they seemed taken out of their dramatic context. Bayrakdarian invested as much urgency as she could in the material but that is hard when the material consists mostly of high flying passage work. The technical challenges would be daunting to most singers, but not to the soprano for the night. Nevertheless, her efforts seemed pointless.
The “Giulio Cesare” aria, “Piagero la sorte mia,” has more substance and Bayrakdarian took full advantage with her clear, very focused soprano. Not only does she have considerable technical resources at her disposal, but knows how to apply them to the music at hand. The most powerful moment of the concert was Cleopatra’s Death Scene from Mattheson’s “Cleopatra.” The soprano is well equipped to turn her laser-like instrument to the expressive heart of the material. Her timbre certainly has a certain beauty of tone, but its chief virtue is intensity and sheer power.
Handel’s orchestral music dominated the rest of the evening: F Major Suite from “Water Music” and G Major Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 1). The durable and ubiquitous “Water Music” was treated with indifference by McGegan. He seemed bored and rushed through the piece, going as fast as he could, regardless of everything around him. The orchestra did its very best to keep up. Phrases were ill-kept and ensemble rough shod. The highlight was the trio of French horns who had much exposure. They played very well indeed. the Concerto Grosso was more considered but still not top flight McGegan.