How are we to evaluate the music of historic composers who have no modern performance tradition? Of course as we listen, we understand the music based on the context of what we know, a process may happen consciously or unconsciously. My experience of serious opera of the eighteenth century includes several works by Handel, Glück, Hasse, and the young Mozart. On first hearing, the music of Maria Teresa Agnesi (1720-1795) impresses, and easily can hold its ground in this company. While until now only an academic footnote in music history, the performance by La Donna Musicale establishes that her operatic works belong in the performance repertoire of the period.
Laury Gutierrez, the ensemble’s adept director and viola da gambist, chose significant highlights to bring to audiences in Boston and Arlington, in the first modern performance of Sophonisba: Heroic Queen (1748). (I heard it at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Arlington on March 26.) With a cast of four singers and seven instrumentalists, the Ensemble made a convincing case for Agnesi’s music.
It is only in the last few decades that singers have emerged with voices suited to the virtuosic demands of the style and with knowledge of the ornamentation that the da capo arias call for. While the conventional voice ranges need agility and flexibility, male sopranos and countertenors have emerged to play the roles that historically were written for castrati. Two remarkable singers took the leading roles, Renée Rapier (contralto) in the title role of the tragic queen, and Robert Crowe (male soprano) as her principle love interest Massinissa, torn between his military duty and his passion for Sophonisba. In the age of the heroic male soprano, to have his female love interest be a contralto offered a perfect vocal contrast. Rapier’s evocative, velvet voice was the luscious counterpart to the dazzling sparkle of Crowe’s coloratura.
Her first aria, “Dubbia ancor del mio destino” (I still doubt my destiny), conveyed tremendous fear and agitation, with the instrumental accompaniment pulsing forward; the B section was languid as the Queen considered her sorrowful future. Later, when the Queen believes she will be accepted by the Romans (whose captive she is), she sings an aria of triumphant optimism, imagining that someday the city of Rome will tremble at the sound of her name. A charismatic actor, Rapier exuded confidence in this powerful aria. The violins underscored this with passages of energetic string crossings.
But it was Massimissa who has the vocal fireworks. His aria of doubt and confusion “Rapido turbin vede” (On seeing the swift whirlwind) was conceived in an unusual style of dramatic short sections illustrating the conceit of a farmer whose heart freezes in terror at seeing a violent wind heading his way, but who then relaxes when it dissipates. The music portrayed these images with such vividness and remarkable flexibility as the ensemble moved through the succession of moods – crashing forward, slamming to a halt, cautiously creeping through agonizing twists of dissonance, and then easing into a gentle lilting melody. With the da capo structure, it became a tour de force for Crowe; he ornamented with repeated-note trills and all manners of roulades and flourishes, pushing and tugging at the tempo. The ensemble amazingly stayed with him — they were all on one roller coaster.
There are noted contemporary countertenors: David Daniels, David Walker, and other male sopranos, such as Randall Wong. But Crowe impresses with the delicacy and presence of his voice and his effortless technique. His piano and pianissimo carry remarkably (even in an acoustic where many of the consonants were muffled). The result is a remarkable combination of both fluidity and expressive range. And if he was showing off just a bit here, well, the pure bravura was exquisite. And Maria Teresa was showing off in writing this aria, too. Bravi to them both!
Gutierrez chose to begin the work with the “Licenza” (permission) aria, a tribute to the work’s patron, Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire. While appended as an epilogue, it made sense to begin with it, since following this initial formal gesture, Gutierrez explained the work’s context and some details of the plot. Tenor Palbo Bustos sang the Licenza elegantly, with his own brilliant set of flourishes in the da capo.
Bustos was also a compelling and persuasive Scipione, the General who tries to convince his friend Massimissa to be ruled by virtue and a desire for glory and not his passion for the Queen. Mezzo-soprano Mary Gerbi portrayed Sophonisba’s friend and confidant in several crucial ensemble scenes and sensitively navigated the twists and turns of the recitative. She brought an intense empathy to the final scene, where the Queen, in order to avoid being an object of humiliation in the Roman victory parade, has poisoned herself.
The instrumental ensemble played with their usual panache. The overture is one of great brilliance, but the concluding Andante and Minuet, while lovely, was a bit ambiguous; it didn’t sum up the tragic power of the final ensemble. But nevertheless, the opera as a whole is a work of convincing power.
Gutierrez affably explained some of the eighteenth-century conventions and urged the audience to come up afterwards, ask questions, and look at the instruments more closely. The ensemble has a devoted following, and I was pleasantly impressed at the diversity of the audience (in terms of race, age, and families with attentive children).
The First Parish UU Church is adequate acoustically; perhaps the site lines might be improved by building some sort of (temporary) platform or stage for the performers. Jordan Hall it ain’t. Yet when this revival of Maria Teresa Agnesi is someday written up in the history books, this unassuming, comfortable venue will have played a momentous role.
Although the Queen Sophonisba dies tragically, La Donna Musicale has achieved a great victory in bringing her — in this opera — back to life.