Sunday, July 3, 2011

Boston Early Music Festival: Steffani and Handel vocal duets

Mireille AsselinEllen HargisMeg BragleJason McStootsDouglas Williams

After the wonderful performance of Handel's Acis and Galatea at the Boston Early Music Festival we decided on impulse to stay for the late-night concert "Fioratura: The vocal chamber duets of Steffani and Handel." I had never heard of Agostino Steffani before this year's BEMF: the centerpiece opera this year was his Niobe, Regina di Tebe (Niobe, Queen of Thebes, 1688) which, like Acis, was based on Ovid's Metamorphoses.

It turned out that there are a surprising number of connections between Handel and Steffani. The two men knew one another, and in Hanover Steffani had been the Kapellmeister for the court of the Elector George August before Handel was appointed to the post.

John Mainwaring, Handel's first biographer, says of Steffani that his "compositions were excellent; his temper exceedingly amiable; and his behavior polite and genteel." [1] Handel, too, must have thought that Steffani's compositions were excellent. In 1973 scholar Colin Timms discovered a Handel signature dated "Roma 1706" on a manuscript collection of Steffani's duets. Steffani was an acknowledged master of the duet form, and when Handel later produced a set of twelve duets for the Hanover court he used Steffani's compositions as models. Mainwaring himself noted similarities between Handel's and Steffani's duets: he wrote of one, "The Duetto beginning, "Amirarvi io sono intento," is a beautiful example of a style truly vocal, and much resembling that of Steffani...The first movement of "Sono liete" is another..." [2]

Based on the insights of Mainwaring and Timms, "Fioratura" was a concert of Steffani and Handel vocal duets, interspersed with instrumental numbers by the two composers (and, for reasons not entirely clear, a guitar duet by a composer of an earlier generation, Francesco Corbetta). The duets were performed by a rotating group of singers (sopranos Mireille Asselin and Ellen Hargis, alto Meg Bragle, tenor Jason McStoots and bass-baritone Doug Williams; the men had also performed in Acis). Instrumental accompaniment was provided by Tragicomedia (Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, lutes; Erin Headley, viola da gamba; Maxine Eilander, harp; plus Kristian Bezuidenhout, harpsichord).

The singers were uniformly excellent, and blended their distinct voices beautifully. The duets, whose largely uncredited texts are highly conventional love poetry, were contrapuntally intricate and involved much imitative illustration of words like "sospirar" (sighing) and "infiammate" (inflamed). In Handel's "Sono liete, fortunate" (performed in the YouTube clip below by soprano Laura Claycomb and alto Sara Mingardo with Emmanuelle Haïm's Le Concert D'Astrée) the two voices intertwine sinuously on the words "catene" (chains):


Sono liete, fortunate,
Dolci, grate le catene,
Le catene un fido amor.

Crudeltà nè lontananza,
Non avran mai la possanza
Di staccarle dal mio cor.

(They are happy and fortunate,
Sweet and gentle, the chains,
The chains of a faithful love.

Neither cruelty not distance
Will ever have the power
To unbind them from my heart.
—Translation by Stephen Stubbs)

The intimate duets of "Fioratura" were a delightful bridge between Handel's Acis and the next day's fully staged performance of Steffani's Niobe, which will be the subject of my next post.

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1. John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (London, 1760), p. 70.
2. Mainwaring, p. 197-198.

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