A new Baroque opera group called Helios mounted its first production on Saturday evening, November 19, in the Friends Meeting House, Cambridge. Consisting of five scenes from early operas, each by a different composer, each composer from a different country, the program was structured most artfully, balancing heartbreak and comedy as it progressed. The first half went backwards in time: starting with the scene from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), in which the title characters discover that their hitherto hidden love for each other is returned; then the scene of the very drunken poet from Purcell’s Fairy Queen (1693); and then Barbara Strozzi’s L’Eraclito amoroso (1651), a dramatic monologue by a betrayed woman. After the intermission the program went forward in time with the scene from Handel’s Agrippina (1709), in which Poppea coaxes King Claudio to remove his heir from the succession, and two consecutive scenes of Mozart’s Zaide (1779), in which the hero, Gomatz, imprisoned by the Sultan, collapses in exhaustion, whereupon Zaide, in love with him, chances by and leaves him her portrait, which revives him thoroughly when he finds it upon awakening.
With orchestral forces of fifteen instruments plus four singers, readers who are familiar with the Friends Meeting House will be wondering how even small scenes could be staged. But they were, and most ingeniously; the stage director, Kateri Chambers, made really excellent use of the space. Purcell’s drunken poet rose, raucously, from the floor in a back corner behind the orchestra, and one of the tormenting fairies entered on the balcony behind the audience; the watchful servant in Handel flung the window open and stuck his head in over the sill to give the “all clear”; Mozart’s fairy-tale version of Turkey was set by dimmed lights and a rug outlined with red and purple candle lamps on the floor between the front pews.
The quality of the singers varied somewhat. Baritone Jacob A. Cooper was consistently first-rate in both voice and acting; the transformation from the jolly, tousled, much-pinched, all-seas-over poet to the sleek, smarmy, Claudio, preening himself with boundless self-conceit was quite enchanting. Soprano Erika Vogel (Aricie and Zaide) and tenor Owen McIntosh (Hippolyte and Gomatz), were both good, though McIntosh’s acting was a trifle fidgety, especially in such close quarters. Gomatz’s long spoken monologues are supposed to be anguished indeed, but McIntosh ranted through them with such energy that it was hard to believe he had really been laboring to exhaustion in a chain-gang, in spite of the ball-and-chain which clanked at his ankle. Soprano Claire Raphaelson (Eraclito and Poppea) acted well, particularly in the elaborate (but quite clever) comic stage business with which she occupied herself during Claudio’s interminable entrance aria; but her voice varied so in projection over its range that I fear it would have been inaudible (below the highest range, in which it was quite penetrating) in a slightly larger space.
The orchestra, directed by Dylan Sauerwald, who also played harpsichord and organ, and Zoe Weiss playing the viola da gamba, was crisp and well coordinated throughout, even in the Rameau ouverture, in which the second section set off at an almost frantic pace; since they also had a very attractive sound, they were a pleasure to listen to.
The evening concluded with an exquisite encore, the quartet addressed “Tendre amour” from Rameau’s Indes galantes, a piece so tenderly sweet and beautiful, and so well played and sung, that the music seemed to glow with kindness.
Helios will be putting on their first full-length staged opera in January: Charpentier’s David et Jonathas. If their first effort is anything to go by, it will be a splendid production. I look forward to it.
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