Coping with crisisA goodly gathering of devotees of Baroque music was on hand at Cary, NC’s Ritter Park to hear nine of Raleigh Camerata‘s musicians, joined by soprano Molly Quinn and baritone Nathaniel Olson, in a program of arias from operas of George Frederic Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. The program consisted of thirteen works: eleven arias and two instrumental pieces which had little relationship to each other except their authorship by the two significant masters of the Italian operatic style. While the stylistic similarities between the arias were easily heard, it was more difficult to keep up with the plots of the ten operas to try to make sense of the texts. (Suffice it to say that if you believe that some “grand opera” plots stretch the imagination, you should try out a few Baroque opera libretti, which can truly require some mental gymnastics to follow!) Because it would take an entire page to list the program, it may be found online here.

The instrumental ensemble (violinists Allison Willet and Matvey Lapin, violist Joey O’Donnell, cellist Chris Nunnally, violonist Robbie Link, flutist Kelly Nivison, oboists Sung Lee and Will Thauer, and harpsichordist Jennifer Streeter) and singers performed from one end of the roofed shelter, with an open field and a greenwood behind them. After hearing more than one ensemble perform from the center of the space rather than the open end, I hope the Camerata will consider this placement option for their next Ritter Park concert, should these al fresco programs continue into their next season. Having more of the wooden roof surrounding the performers seems to function as an acoustical shell, focusing the sound towards the audience.

While we are annually inundated by thousands of performances of Handel’s Messiah, his many operas, on which his London fame was established, are rarely heard. (By coincidence, however, those interested may find Metropolitan Opera online presentations of Rodelinda on May 4th and Agrippina on May 9th.)  It was refreshing to hear even these brief excerpts. Highlights were frequent:

Olson’s bravado reading of Zoroastro’s aria from Orlando, which was exciting enough to impel a canine member of the audience to add its own exclamatory interruption, and his superb reading and cadenza in Vivaldi’s aria from La Senna Festeggianti.

Quinn’s vocal fluency, producing a scintillating soprano-and-oboe 16th-note-roulade duet in her Agrippina excerpt, followed by her velvety liquescent legato tones over the languished, pulsating strings of the aria from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. (Acis and Galatea in English; many of Handel’s operas may be sung in Italian or in English, which is sometimes confusing when the characters’ names are dissimilar, such as when Serse becomes Xerxes. But I digress.) 

Both singers’ duet from Rinaldo, closing the concert with the most “Handelian” sound of the afternoon as they essayed the French-Baroque-style rhythms with wonderful plasticity, even when using different articulations of the principal rhythmic figure;

The instrumentalists’ collective virtuosity, from the treble lines of Nivison’s flute and Willet’s violin, often joined by the pungent double reeds of Lee and Thauer and the indispensible harmonies so often allotted to O’Donnell’s viola,  to the continuo partners’ (Streeter, Nunnally, Link) undergirding of the whole. All are masters of their craft, providing readings which are not only musically accurate, but which are also infused with their love of what they play and with their understanding of how it should sound.

With an ensemble of this size, there are times when a conductor would be helpful, especially given the problems of indoor rehearsals for an outdoor performance. Subtle things such as collective ritards, beginning together at the da capo portions of arias, and balance between singer and instruments could be better coordinated by a leader.

Having “live” concerts return is something for which so many have been waiting. Outside programs do have their drawbacks, of course, several of which were evident here: barking dogs, unhappy toddlers, and aircraft fly-overs. And, for that matter, the harpsichord was never intended to be an outdoor instrument.

That said, Raleigh Camerata’s final concert of their current season was a successful venture, with fine performances of lesser-known secular works by two Baroque composers often noted for their sacred vocal works. We look forward to their announcement of next season’s concerts, as they continue under the skillful guidance and inspiration of artistic director Dr. Kelly Nivison.

See & hear the concert here.