For us 2014 was musically bookended by two brilliant countertenors. In February we saw the electrifying Philippe Jaroussky perform with the Venice Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances season. The concert was billed as a battle between the rival composers Handel and Nicola Porpora, featuring arias written for their star castrati Carestini and Farinelli. At the end of the concert I turned to my partner and said "Handel won." The real winners, of course, were all of us fortunate enough to be in the audience for Jaroussky's stunning performances of "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" from Handel's Alcina, "Scherza infida" from Handel's Ariodante, and "Alto Giove" from Porpora's Polifemo:
Jaroussky has recorded excellent albums devoted to arias written for Carestini and Farinelli.
In November we saw Andreas Scholl appear with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus in a program of Handel and Bach. In the middle of the third decade of his international career, Scholl's tone has lost little of the beauty displayed in his early recordings. He sang "Va tacit e nascosto" and "Aure, deh, per pieta" from the title role of Giulio Cesare, and an exquisite "Dove sei" from Rodelinda (the Met Live in HD broadcast of the latter was one of my Favorites of 2011). In the second half, he performed the lovely Cantata No. 170, "Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust" (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul):
The most sheerly enjoyable dance we saw in 2014 was the Mark Morris Dance Group's production of Handel's Acis and Galatea, seen in Berkeley in April. (So far we're two for two with this Handel chamber opera: we also saw a great production of it at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2011.) Morris's version used Mozart's fuller reorchestration, performed brilliantly by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Nicholas McGegan. And just as he did in the BEMF production, bass-baritone Douglas Williams stole the show as the jealous cyclops Polifemo. Some of the other singers' costumes were unflattering, but that was the only flaw in a production that brought back fond memories of Morris's version of Handel's "L'Allegro."
A great cast and Christopher Alden's clever and visually striking production at San Francisco Opera could not quite disguise the middling level of Handel's musical inspiration in Partenope (seen October 24). But the Surrealist milieu and Man Ray visual references worked beautifully as an updated setting for this story of erotic intrigue and irresolution. As the title character, Danielle De Niese was costumed as a combination of Peggy Guggenheim and Nancy Cunard, and ruled over a salon of the yearning and the lost. I don't think I will ever forget the sight of tenor Alek Shrader singing an aria through the transom window of a water closet, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Messe des morts/Litanies, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Naxos Records
Messe de Monsieur de Mauroy, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Glossa
Miserere/Motets, La Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, director: Harmonia Mundi
Actéon, Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors: CPO
This was the year we immersed ourselves in Charpentier's sacred music, thanks mainly to the serendipitous discovery of Messe des morts (Mass for the dead) in Amoeba Music San Francisco's bargain bin. While we had long been familiar with his operas—William Christies's recording of Medée with Lorraine Hunt in the title role was one of the first Baroque operas I ever purchased, Magnificat's performance of La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers was one of our Favorites of 2011, and Actéon was one of this year's highlights)—Charpentier was largely blocked from producing works for the stage by the hostility of rival composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. By necessity Charpentier devoted most of his energies to sacred music, and this year we discovered its many beauties.
Lalla-Roukh, Opera Lafayette, Ryan Brown, director: Naxos Records.
Based on an 1817 poem by Thomas Moore, and later turned into a Bollywood movie, Lalla Roukh's story is strange indeed. As I wrote in my post on the opera, "In reviving and recording this forgotten gem, Opera Lafayette has outshone opera companies with budgets many times as large. If you enjoy the sound-world of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Bizet's Pearl Fishers or Delibes' Lakmé, you'll find Lalla-Roukh to be a fresh new discovery with some welcome familiarities."
The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals, Delitiae Musicae, Marco Longhini, director: Naxos Records.
The Italian Renaissance prince Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover when he found them in bed together, and later was accused of madness. At the same time he was one of the greatest composers of the madrigal, and the extremes of chromaticism and dissonance developed in his music were not approached again until the 20th Century. Many thanks to the dear friend who gave this to me; I've been playing it obsessively for weeks.
Finally, I can't help but notice that three of my favorite recordings of 2014—Messe des morts, Lalla-Roukh, and The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals—were issued on the Naxos budget label. If only all record labels were this adventurous.