It is hard not to hear some comedy in Stephen Stubbs’s Baroque guitar. Performing as part of a six-member Tragicomedia in Cambridge’s First Church on Saturday evening, Stubbs regaled the crowded nave of the church with a performance of Francisco Guerau’s Españoleta. Stubbs’s fluent (and — not to gush — nothing short of virtuosoistic and confident) read of Gerau’s work provided a light, conversational tone to the work that blithely negotiated delightfully confounding hemiolae (a rhythmic device in music whereby the meter changes briefly, usually found where two measures of three beats feel like three measures of two beats, or vice-versa), presenting the nearly 300-year work as fresh and as intriguing as if it were written today.
Performances like Saturday’s remind us why Boston is a special place musically. It is, of course, one thing to have Stubbs co-direct the Boston Early Music Festival, but another thing entirely to have someone of Stubbs’s achievement and understanding performing on stage. But more: in addition to Stubbs, we are lucky to have the considerable talents of BEMF co-director Paul O’Dette, Erin Headley, and Kristian Bezuidenhout in performance with soprano Shannon Mercer and bass-baritone Douglas Williams. The ensemble Tragicomedia presented an evening of early cantatas by Handel and his contemporaries on Saturday, January 28.
It is no surprise, of course, that individual performances were particularly strong. O’Dette was featured on lute in a performance of Sonata à Mandolino e Basso by Handel’s collaborator (and competitor) Carlo Arrigoni, providing a sense of arch 18th-century Italian drama. In contrast, Erin Headley, one of the co-founders of Tragicomedia, was featured in a re-purposing of Handel’s “Col partir la bella Clori” from Ah, che pur troppo è vero for viola da gamba. Headley’s wine-dark gamba achieved a stunningly vocal timbre in the wine-dark colors of the instruments, making the work ideal for stringed instrument yet cannily wary of the flexibility and direction of lyrical melodic line. Headley achieved a stunningly dramatic read of the aria on her instrument; it is easy to see why Stubbs terms this aria Headley’s “theme song”! Harpsichordist Bezuidenhout was of particular note, presenting a combination of movements from harpsichord suites by Handel. The works, ranging from tender to labyrinthine, culminated in a virtuosic variation set from the Suite No. 3 in D minor (HWV 428) that, in Bezuidenhout’s hands, achieved the fullest orchestral effect of the instrument.
Both Mercer and Williams provided a well-balanced performance, reveling in the rich timbres of both their voices, particularly in the lower registers, as in Strozzi’s Donna no sà che dice, no dice che sà. Williams seemed less comfortable in his high higher range. In contrast, Mercer showed remarkable control and flexibility in her glittering upper range, particularly in solo cantatas such as No se emenderá jamás, the only one of Handel’s Spanish cantatas, or in duet with Wheeler in Agostino Steffani’s Tengo per infallibile. As a duet, both Mercer and Williams fully portrayed the rich operatic drama of the works, be it in the tender moments of at the close of Tengo per infallibile, or the (again) arch Italian drama of Handel’s prayer to Cupid, Tacete, ohimè, tacete.
This is not to ignore to ignore the ensemble as a whole. This six-member group seemed to bear the brunt of the educational responsibilities of the evening, showing us the evolution of Handel’s cantata from its early form in the works Barbara Strozzi (practically Monteverdian seconda practica madrigal) through to the recit/da capo aria style characteristic of Handel and his contemporaries. Tragicomedia had some problems with balance early in the performance that appeared to fix itself quickly. The remainder of the performance remained faithful to a unified understanding of the music, supporting solo lines effectively particularly during instrumental solo lines, as Headley gave in Col partir la bella Clori and O’Dette in Sonata à Mandolino e Basso.
The expertise, sensitivity, and programming expertise demonstrated by Stubbs and the Tragicomedia ensemble were consistently appreciated by the audience that filled the pews of First Church, Cambridge. The ensemble’s well-deserved standing ovation was rewarded with a reprise of the lyrical and (frankly) touching reprise of the final lines of Steffani’s Tengo per infallibile.
Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various choral groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.