Sunday, December 23, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Music

For me 2012 was The Year of Haydn. In Haydn Chamber Music I wrote, "For many years I resisted the appeal of Joseph Haydn's music. It seemed too clever to be profound, too pleasant to be emotionally affecting." Well, his music is clever and pleasant, although those virtues don't seem as minor to me as they once did. But they are also intricate, beautifully structured, melodically appealing, and (yes) emotionally moving.

The performances of Haydn's string quartets by the period-instrument ensemble Quatuor Mosaïques are revelatory, and helped me to appreciate the quartet form in a way that I never had managed to do before. And while in his operas Haydn doesn't quite achieve the emotional depth of, say, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, they are filled with wonderful music. I wrote a full-length post on Haydn's operas; here is mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus singing "Se non piange un infelice" from Haydn's L'Isola Disabitata (The Desert Island), accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis:

More arias from the operas are included in the "Haydn's operas" post.

The Met Live in HD: The Enchanted Island and La Clemenza di Tito

The Met Live in HD continues to be an excellent series, and it's a fun way to spend a Saturday morning (on the West Coast the matinee broadcasts begin between 9 and 10 am). This year was notable for two outstanding productions. On January 21 we saw The Enchanted Island, a modern pasticcio of arias by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others. The original words were replaced with a new English-language libretto by Jeremy Sams that shipwrecks the lovers from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream on Prospero's island from The Tempest. Great music, Sams' witty libretto, and the committed performances of a cast that included David Daniels, Danielle De Niese, Joyce Didonato, Plácido Domingo, Luca Pisaroni and Lisette Oropesa (a delightful Romilda in the SF Opera's 2011 production of Handel's Xerxes) made this new-old opera an utter delight.

But for me the biggest discovery of The Enchanted Island was Elizabeth DeShong, who sang the role of Hermia. She has a scene at the opening of Act II, based on "Where shall I fly?" from Handel's oratorio Hercules, that shows off her thrilling voice. She's a singer we'll definitely be looking for in the future.

On December 1, the Met broadcast Mozart's next-to-last opera, La Clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus, 1791) in a handsome Jean-Pierre Ponelle production. Speaking of handsome, the gorgeous Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča performed the role of the conflicted Sesto, lover of the vengeful Vitellia (Barbara Frittoli). While her fashion-model looks haven't hurt Garanča's career, more importantly she brings to her roles a fierce commitment and a meltingly beautiful voice:

Also outstanding in this production were Lucy Crowe as Sesto's sister Servilia, and Kate Lindsey as Annio, Servilia's lover and Sesto's steadfast friend. If the libretto makes the Emperor Titus (a subdued Giuseppe Filianoti) too good to be true, the singers and conductor Harry Bicket made as convincing as possible a case for the opera.

Favorite live music event: Polychoral Splendors of the Renaissance, First Congregational Church, Berkeley, Friday, Feb. 3. Produced by Cal Performances.

The best concert we saw in 2012 wasn't the three-hour-long show put on by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Oakland on November 30 (the obnoxious drunken morons sitting behind us made sure of that). It was of music written more than 400 years before "Born To Run": Alessandro Striggio's mass "Ecco si beato giorno," whose final Agnus Dei is performed by five separate 12-voice choirs. In the post Sixteenth-century psychedelia: Polychoral Splendors of the Renaissance, I wrote that being enveloped by this wave of sound was "a consciousness-altering experience." The awe-inspiring performances of 40-, 50- and 60-part polychoral works by the combined choruses of several Bay Area early music groups under the direction of conductor and musicologist Davitt Moroney were a musical experience that we will never forget.

Favorite recording: Mission. Cecilia Bartoli with Philippe Jaroussky. I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis, conductor. Decca 4784732.

Cecilia Bartoli's catalog of recordings is filled with rarities, such as her recent aria collections from 17th-century Italian oratorios (Opera Proibita) and from roles written for castrati (Sacrificium). But few of the composers whose work she has revived have been less recorded than Agostino Steffani (1654-1728). A contemporary of Alessandro Scarlatti, Steffani was the Kappellmeister for the Hanoverian court before Handel was appointed to the post. Handel and Steffani knew one another, and Handel thought so highly of Steffani's vocal duets that he used them as models for his own.

Four duets (with electrifying countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who starred in the Boston Early Music Festival's production of Niobe, Regina di Tebe) appear on this very generous 25-track album, which also includes solo arias from a dozen of Steffani's operas. And the music is of exceptional quality; it's astonishing that it is so little known:

Other Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Television, and Books

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