Monday, May 6, 2013

Handel's Apollo e Dafne and Sileti venti

Apollo and Daphne (detail), Tiepolo, 1744

Repression leads to sublimation. When public performances of opera were banned in Rome by papal edicts in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—opera audiences engaged in "casual and promiscuous social intercourse, always noisy, sometimes riotous and indecent" [1]—composers instead turned to the cantata.

Cantatas were a more intimate form for one or two singers with instrumental accompaniment, were performed in private residences, and were not generally staged. But, like opera, they required a very high degree of virtuosity from their performers. And under the cover of portraying mythological or historical figures, cantatas could treat the same subjects that the Pope found so objectionable in opera: lust, madness and death. Cantatas became miniature operas by another name.

When Handel travelled to Italy as a young man in the first decade of the 1700s, he spent much of his time in Rome, a major center of musical patronage, and quickly mastered the cantata form. Before he left Italy four years later he'd written more than a hundred cantatas. (The composer he took as his model, Alessandro Scarlatti, wrote more than 600!) Apollo e Dafne (Apollo and Daphne, 1710) is one of the longest and most richly scored of these.

Apollo and Daphne (detail), Bernini, 1622-25

It tells a story from Book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses: the god Apollo is smitten with the chaste nymph Daphne, and when she resists his advances he pursues her; unable to escape, Daphne prays to the gods for deliverance, and is transformed into a laurel tree. Handel wrote the cantata for soprano and bass-baritone, and it contains some exquisite music, such as Dafne's first aria, "Felicissima quest' alma, ch'ama sol la liberta" (Happy is my spirit, which loves only freedom):



This lovely performance is by Karina Gauvin, accompanied by Les Violons du Roy conducted by Bernard Labadie. Her partner in this recording (Dorian xCD-90288) is baritone Russell Braun, who delivers Apollo's final lament with an understated lyricism:


On a last-minute impulse last Sunday I attended a concert by American Bach Soloists, conducted by founding music director Jeffrey Thomas, that featured Apollo e Dafne along with Handel's sacred motet Sileti venti (Silence, ye winds, 1708) and three arias for bass from Bach's cantatas. The soloists, who were in excellent form, were bright-voiced soprano Mary Wilson and the bass Mischa Bouvier.

Bouvier's voice has a very appealing timbre, warm and robust, and so hearing the Bach cantata arias was a real pleasure. But I do have to question the decision to combine Bach and Handel in the first half of this program. Bach's forbidding Lutheranism was in perhaps too stark contrast with Handel's joyous Italianate sensuousness. In Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? (Dearest God, when will I die?) Bach set the text "Nichts, was mir gefällt, Besitzet die Welt" (Nothing that delights me belongs to this world). The singer in Sileti venti, by contrast, speaks of the soul's "felicissima laetitia" (supreme joy) as she asks to be pierced by sacred love. The performance in this video is by British soprano Sarah Fox:


In this cantata Handel and his anonymous librettist, perhaps deliberately, suggest parallels between sacred and erotic love. And Wilson's alluring voice and thrilling coloratura only heightened the confusion.

I'm very glad I took the opportunity to hear these rarely performed Handel masterpieces in the serene setting of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, one of San Francisco's best venues for music. It was a delightful way to spend a late spring Sunday afternoon. And it proved that repression can sometimes have its uses.

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1. David Kimbell. Italian Opera. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 108

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