Guest conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini brought a refined Italian flare to the final concert of the Handel & Haydn Society’s regular subscription season. The Lenten offering on Friday (and Sunday) at Symphonny Hall paired Antonio Bononcini’s Stabat Mater withJ.S. Bach’s Easter Oratorio. Alessandrini’s passionate conducting seemed at times to border on interpretive dance, but the orchestra and choir matched his energy with equally exuberant elegance and cantabile.
Bononcini’s Stabat Mater has a slow burn. The first few choruses and arias set texts with restraint. The opening chorus begins with a lugubrious instrumental passage, furnished with the expected suspensions and ligatures. This dissonant writing resolves to polyphony as the choir enters, narrating the action with a distant perspective. The operatic bravura begins in the fifth number, the aria Eia Mater, fons amoris. Perhaps illustrating this ‘fountain of love,’ Bononcini compliments the mezzo-soprano with a flowery violin obligato. Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky played with great verve, transforming the fountain into a flood of hope. However, this hope does not last. The following aria, Fac me vere tecum flere, a mournful lament, forms the nadir of the piece. The free vocal line over strings reminded one of the expressive adagio movements from Italian violin concerti. Subsequent arias varied from declamatory arioso to dramatic pleas, but all with theatric flair. The ending choruses are especially thrilling. Fierce dotted rhythms animated Virgo virginum praeclara, and the concluding fugue stands on par with any by JS Bach.
The fanfares from the trio of trumpeters heralded the Sinfonia and Adagio that opened the Easter Oratorio. In a display of the skill of the H+H orchestra, melodies moved seamlessly between strings and winds, and the whole ensemble played with a casual Baroque swagger, never losing intensity. Debra Nagy (principal oboe) displayed bravura in her solos particularly in the expansive coloratura line in the stirring second movement.
Silvia Frigato (soprano) and Emi Ferguson (flute) complimented each other beautifully in Bach’s aria Selle, deine Spezereien. Like two seraphim, they dazzled us with sparkle and sweetness. Frigato frequently looked around the room, engaging with gestures from her arms and shoulders. Ferguson delivered a similar liveliness, inflecting the part with gentle movements.
Gabriele Lombardi (baritone) brought the ideal amount of oratorio drama to his arias. His booming voice filled the hall in expertly shaped tones with measured vibrato. He declaimed Bononcini’s Iuxta crucem tecum stare with a natural vocal inflection, and Guy Fishman (principal cello) phrased his bassline around Lombardi, reinforcing the aria’s word setting with deliberate articulation and sensitivity.
Tenor Ben Bliss projected powerfully while retaining suavity of production. In Bononcini’s Fac ut portem Chriti mortem, he effectively expressed the emphatic pleading of the text without ostentation. His interjections in the chorus Fac me plagis vulnerary, which pitted him against 32nd note runs from the violins, sounded even more stunning. He rose above the orchestra with gravitas and ease. He endowed Bach’s aria Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer with warmth and sensitivity, maintaining distinctive colorations at every dynamic.
Anna Bonitatibus (mezzo-soprano) shaped her lines with impeccable vowel modification, creatively mutating syllables to bring out a spectrum of emotions from repeated words. The audience held onto every word as her whispery timbre charmed us with sweet nothings. She melded her warm mezzo with Frigato in Bononcini’s aria Quis est homo gui non fleret. In several moments, they blended so completely as to become indistinguishable from one other. Nagy (principal oboe) shared an exquisite solo with her in Bach’s Saget, Saget mir geschwinde in which the melodious lines flowed with unencumbered freedom and grace.
Kommt, eilet und laufet served as a marvelous showcase for the H+H Chorus; its 29 members produced a unified sound with sensitive phrasing and clear articulation, sending texts across as if one-to-a-part, but with a breadth that matched that of the orchestra. The finale, Preis und Dank, produced rapturous applause even before the last note died away.