Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra from Cleveland was joined by French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in the third concert of the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2011-2012 season, which took place Saturday evening, November 5, in Emmanuel Church, Boston. The program consisted of operatic arias and instrumental works by close contemporaries and sometime rivals Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel. Apollo’s Fire founder and director Jeannette Sorrell led the mostly young, mostly female and — in every sense of the word — stylish group of string players from the harpsichord, with additional continuo support provided alternately by theorbo or guitar. The evening got off to an energetic start with the Allegro from Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major for two violins, arranged by Sorrell as a Concerto Grosso. Breakneck tempo, clipped phrasing, and extreme dynamic contrasts bordered on the manneristic, but Sorrell’s consistent direction and the ensemble’s virtuosity added up to a convincing performance nonetheless.
Following without pause, “Agitato da fiere tempeste” (Shaken by fierce tempests), an aria from Handel’s Oreste, continued in the same bravura vein. Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky proved himself more than a match for the virtuoso roulades and precarious leaps composed to show off the skills of the great castrato Giovanni Carestini, star of the 1734 Covent Garden performance. The next aria, from Handel’s wedding serenade Parnasso in Festa (1734), brought a complete change of mood. After a “pathetic” accompanied recitative, the aria — a slow siciliano — was a vehicle for Jaroussky’s astonishing range of vocal tone colors. Almost miraculously, the da capo return of the opening melody began softly as if from a distance, concluding with leisurely variations that demonstrated the singer’s mastery of late baroque performance style. Violinists Olivier Brault and Johanna Novom were the soloists in a spirited rendition of Vivaldi’s double concerto in A minor (familiar as an organ concerto in J. S. Bach’s arrangement). Their transparent and relaxed playing in the Larghetto was especially winning. Two more Handel arias completed the first half of the program: the lament in pastoral mode that opens Imeneo (1740), full of delicate musical imagery representing sighs and ocean waves, and “Con l’ali di constanza/Alza il suo volo Amor” (Love takes its flight/On the wings of constancy) from Ariodante (1735). Inspired by the optimistic text, Handel takes the singer through dazzling flights of melody, which Jaroussky executed at breakneck speed with flawless accuracy and breath control.
After a harpsichord prelude and an orchestral Chaconne by Handel, Vivaldi held center stage with three operatic arias. Although the native Italian could not match the German-born composer’s sensitivity to the nuances of text articulation,Vivaldi’s arias certainly rivalled Handel’s in richness of melodic invention. “Se mai senti spirarti sul volto” (If you ever feel wafting around your face the breath of a gentle breeze), a text by the prolific librettist Metastasio, compares breezes to sighs in a typical pastoral conceit, the violins and voice trading motives in exquisite ensemble. After a contrasting middle section in agitated minor mode, Jaroussky sang the da capo repeat sotto voce, concluding with a suitably restrained cadenza. The second aria, featuring more sighs and suffering, was accompanied throughout by pizzicato strings in contrast to the beautifully shaped melisma of the vocal line. Between these two rather subdued arias, we were treated to a rousing version of Vivaldi’s La Follia variations over a ground bass, arranged by Sorrell as a concerto grosso and interpreted by the ensemble as a mad dance accelerating to a truly frenzied climax. The final aria depicted a protagonist rescued from storms at sea, and here the textual imagery was matched by bravura roulades at top speed. The seemingly tireless Jaroussky obliged with no less than three encores, including an aria composed for the castrato Farinelli by the Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora, and Handel’s famous “Ombra mai fu” from Serse.
With a background in violin and piano, Jaroussky combines superior musicianship and an unerring sense of style with a superb vocal instrument, a winning combination to showcase this demanding repertory. Once dismissed as unperformable, arias and complete operas by Handel and other Baroque composers have been successfully revived in recent years. Their heroic castrato parts, formerly transposed downward, are now sung in their proper range either by female singers or by male singers with extended and well-trained falsetto capabilities. At their best, these countertenors and sopranists would seem to approach or even match the strength and agility of the legendary castrato singers for whom so much extraordinary music was composed.
Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.