Concerts by Boston Early Music Festival’s core chamber orchestra led by co-directors, lutenists Paul O’Dette and Steven Stubbs, and the core group of extraordinarily gifted singers who star in their annual Thanksgiving weekend and biennial June opera productions, often feel like the happiest of family reunions. The camaraderie among the performers is palpable; many know each other also from other early music groups, such as Blue Heron, and their mutual trust and respect is palpable.
This June for its 25th concert season and its 18th Biennial Festival and Exhibition, BEMF will stage three (yes!) operas by Claudio Monteverdi, as well as his Vespers of 1610 (which has been heard already twice in Boston this past year)—all between June 7th and 14th. Several of its perennial stars are appearing in three productions, which must be a singer’s equivalent to the Boston Marathon. Soprano Amanda Forsythe and Australian countertenor David Hansen—one well-known, and one brand new to Boston audiences, will star in L’incoronazione de Poppea.
Members of the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble supported the first half of Saturday’s musical get-together, “vocal delights.” Selections by Monteverdi (1567-1643), as well as Dario Castello (early 17th C.) certainly provided delights, included all the scenes between Poppea and Nerone, which, Steven Stubbs writes, “sets a standard for intensity and dramatic realism that has never been surpassed.” I have known Forsysthe’s work, so was hardly surprised to hear her in shimmeringly beautiful voice all evening.
Making his Boston début, Hansen was devilishly good, with a puckish humor, and noteworthy good looks (like a young Jake Gyllenhaal). He is a countertenor on a roll. Being anointed by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross anointed as “a pure-voiced young Australian who is typical of a new breed of matinée-idol countertenors” certainly hasn’t hurt his burgeoning reputation. He’s suddenly everywhere. (Before his June BEMF appearance, he will appear with Susanna Phillips in Handel’s Agrippina with the Boston Baroque (April 24th and 25th).
The instrumental interludes for the first half included Monteverdi’s two different overtures for Poppea that exist in two different sources, commonly referred to as the Venice and Naples manuscripts, and “Sonata desimasesta” by Costello, who was strongly influenced by Monteverdi. Violinist Johanna Novom was most impressive.
The second half, devoted to music of Handel (1685-1759) was positively thrilling. As befits a diva, Forsythe changed from an elegant grey dress to an outfit with a peach bottom and sparkling gold top. She dazzled in every way. Not to be outdone, Hansen changed into a different color jacket; he looked dashing. No diva was going to out-dress this countertenor. Forsythe sang Schönste Rosen” from Almira, Handel’s first opera (1705), which suited her to a tee. Hansen assuredly belted “Torni pure” from Parnasso in festa (HWV 73) to a rapturous response. A five movement Trio Sonata in G major (HWV 399) performed by harpsichordist Michael Sponseller, cellist Phoebe Carrai violist Laura Jeppesen, viola, and viloinists Johanna Novom and Theres Salomon, and Steven Stubbs, who wrote the excellent program notes, and Paul O’Dette played chitarrone, lute and Baroque guitar, shone with chops and assurance.
After Forsythe sang “Da tempeste” from Giulio Cesare (HWV 17), and Hansen executed “Dopo note” Ariodante HWV 33), the only thing more this Sanders Theater audience could have asked for was a Handel duet, which was delivered with high spirits by the evening’s two stars. I will let lutenist and program annotator Steven Stubbs have the last word: “Finally, much as Poppea and Nerone (after careers of unfettered selfish ambition) unite in their final duet “Pur ti miro,” so do Ginevra and Ariodante emerge from their troubles to sing their light-hearted and frothy love duet “Bramo aver mille vite.” Now, this pair has chemistry!