Continuing their fine tradition, Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque offered orchestral music and excerpts from operas on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (this reviewer heard the latter performance) at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. They were joined by two fine young vocal artists, soprano Sara Heaton and baritone Andrew Garland, in selections from three Mozart operas; Garland provided the sole character in a one-act opera by Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801), and Heaton sang a fine concert aria.
This “mostly Mozart” program began with the Divertimento in D Major for Strings, K. 136, by the 16-year-old composer. The period instruments produced a light and airy effect with pellucid textures allowing every detail to emerge effortlessly. The antiphonal placement of the first and second violins made for delicious conversational effects in the jubilant opening Allegro. The middle movement Andante was soulful and elegant; Pearlman’s expressive shaping of the phrases was artful. The “sneaky” opening chords of the final Presto contrasted enjoyably with the brilliant main theme. The players tossed off the most virtuosic writing of the Divertimento, visibly enjoying this sparkling music. Such an effervescent opener was ideal for a New Year’s concert where champagne flowed.
Though K. 136 is certainly accomplished, the opening two scenes of Le nozze di Figaro brought us to Mozart’s highest level of compositional achievement. With da Ponte’s channeling of Beaumarchais, Mozart artfully delivered pointed social commentary within his highly diverting but poignant masterpiece. The two singers were stylistically exemplary, with a seemingly instinctive grasp of Mozart’s frequent infusion of opera seria into opera buffa. The first scene—Susanna’s trying on a new hat and her fiancé Figaro’s measuring the room given to these young domestics by their employer, the Count—opened with the entertainment of the duo “talking past each other.” Soon enough, however, Heaton as Susannah found a way to convince her partner—without drastically darkening the mood—that the Count’s motives were not altogether altruistic. It is Figaro who has the greater character development over these two scenes. With a light touch, Garland began by portraying the valet as affectionate if a bit dense, later the character’s skepticism emerged without openly scoffing at Susanna. Finally he appeared convinced and determined to thwart his superior’s lubricious intentions to restore the recently banned droit du seigneur. Heaton, of course, helped this process, simultaneously comical and deadly serious explanation of the implications of something as seemingly innocent as a bell summons (Così se il mattino). In Figaro’s famous cavatina Se vuol ballare, Garland, Pearlman, and the band created the perfect veneer of courtliness, with momentary suspensions only at the increasingly emphatic repetitions of si! as Figaro anticipates “calling the tune.”
Mozart left us a fine occasional piece in his concert aria Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gonner! (Accept my thanks, kind patrons!), K. 383. Written for the composer’s onetime flame, the outstanding soprano Aloysia Weber, on the occasion of her moving away from Vienna. Mozart’s gracious and graceful music manages to redeem a rather rancidly sexist text (approximately: men could speak my thanks to you with proper ardor, but I—alas, alack—am a woman and cannot). The implication seems to be that only in song can she give full expression to her gratitude, yet Heaton took an unassertive approach which, I regret, extended to her enunciation, though in other respects she sang simply and handsomely.
Staying on the popularity train, the program next included three sizable selections from Die Zauberflöte: Papageno’s self-introduction, the scene of his unbalanced passion for Papagena near the end of which he declares that with her disappearance he’ll kill himself, and the quickly succeeding duet when she reappears just in time. Garland was less hammy than some, but his smile and the glint in his eye were never far away. In the concluding duet the two lovers are so overcome with euphoria that Papagena and Papageno (Pearlman quipped, “Do you think they were meant for each other?”) can do little more, at first, than stutter each other’s name; the combined energy of the duo at times began to overflow the bounds of steady tempo but never got dangerously close to a derailment. The conclusion, complete with smooch, charmed the audience.
Following the fizz-fest during intermission, came three light-hearted crowd-pleasers from Don Giovanni as befit the celebration of a new year. Again beneath the delectable surface there were some harder truths about social stratification and the commodification of women. When Zerlina, guilty though also faithful after her own fashion, begs her fiancé Masetto to beat her, pull out her hair, and gouge out her eyes (Batti, batti, o bel Masetto) to music of exquisite lyricism, it is submission carried to an absurd extreme, the better to contrast with her subsequent fervent plea for reconciliation. Heaton characterized the former section well with a gentle delivery in fine-spun legato (though audible consonants were rare), but the increased tempo of the second section (“Let’s make up, my own true love”) was not accompanied by a parallel increase in emotion, though matters were helped by the vigorous cello line of Jennifer Morsches.
Departing from the opera’s order, Garland next gave us Leporello’s renowned catalogue aria in which Don Giovanni’s manservant warns Zerlina about his master, listing by country the mind-boggling numbers of women the libertine has ruined. It was great fun to watch the baritone race through the list—with an imaginary audience’s gusts of laughter provided by Christopher Krueger’s flute—initially in detached, businesslike manner, then later seeming vicariously to enjoy the Don’s adventures. In the calmer section Garland was hilarious as he detailed the Don’s appreciation for multiple physical types by slowly spreading his hands wider and wider at “la grande maestosa” (“large and majestic”). The final excerpt was the seduction duet Là ci darem la mano (“There I’ll give you my hand”) between the Don and Zerlina. Garland’s suave and graceful singing made entirely credible Zerlina’s weakening loyalty to Masetto: in Heaton’s performance we could see her character go from upright and proper to curious to fun-loving as she mentally works out her moral compromise. Only the horns’ imperfect tuning slightly undermined this handsome rendition.
The concert concluded with Cimarosa’s Il maestro di cappella (“The Music Director” as sung in English translation), a fully comic one-act work concerned with the volatile relationship between a pompous conductor and an increasingly mischievous orchestra in rehearsal. I must include a word of praise to the working maestro: Cimarosa’s opera survives only in keyboard score, and though there is intermittent guidance from the libretto, Pearlman’s orchestration is fully apt throughout. After Garland’s deliberately noisy and tardy arrival onstage at the end of the overture, he introduced himself as one of the “old school” (read: rigid stuffed shirt) and quickly set about demonstrating to the players, with obsessive repetitions, precisely what he wanted from them. Though it would have been acceptable to play the conductor quite broadly throughout, to his credit, the singer chose the less easy route of nuance, while reserving the ham for the funniest moments only—most notably, the ridiculous sound of a human voice trying to imitate the nasality of an oboe. The Boston Baroque players had a rare comic opportunity too when they began with relish to sabotage Garland’s music director. Of course, the players’ ultimate desire to get conclude the rehearsal induces them finally to follow Garland with scrupulous care; when this happened, his facial expression transformed from riled to rapturous in a couple seconds. The conductor’s reaction is “What a joy when everyone plays the right notes at the right time—and it’s all because of me!” It can’t have been easy to have two directors conducting at once, but Pearlman and Garland’s collaboration was smooth and efficient.
If BB’s program this year was less adventurous than some in its past, it was nevertheless enjoyable, enhanced as it was by two singers unafraid to venture beyond traditional interpretations. Pearlman and his band deserve to be savored at New Year’s or at any time of the year.