The world of Georg Friedrich Handel came to Princeton this past weekend as the University hosted the American Handel Festival, a two-day national conference featuring sessions on performance practice and interpretation, and culminating in a performance by the University Glee Club of Handel’s “musical drama” Hercules. This is not one of Handel’s better-known works; historically it comes not long after Handel abandoned the Italian opera form in which he had been so successful and began to excel in the genre of oratorio, a form he essentially invented and then owned for several decades. Hercules draws from both genres, with less of the vocal fireworks which characterize 18th century opera and plenty of the long, melodic solo lines for which Handel is known.
The audience at Richardson Auditorium on Saturday night included students (some likely on their way to Spring Formals), community members (always looking for a good classical concert) and the Handel conference scholars, representing universities, colleges, and performing ensembles from all over the country. For this performance, which lasted a good three hours even with cuts in the score, conductor Richard Tang Yuk assembled an array of soloists not heard in Princeton before to convey the plotline of Handel’s drama, backed up by the “Greek chorus” of the Glee Club.
The vocal anomaly of late 17th and early 18th century opera was the castrato singer, represented in this century by the countertenor. Although Handel composed the role of Lichas for a female mezzo who had originated numerous roles in his previous oratorios, Dr. Tang Yuk gave this part to countertenor Ian Howell, trained at Yale and clearly looking at a great future on the concert stage. Although obviously no one knows what the leading castrati actually sounded like, it is clear from the music of the period that an ability to soar into the vocal stratosphere with a long sustaining vocal line and tons of stamina were required. Countertenors in this century often fall short in one of these areas, sounding pinched in the top register or singing with a restrained sound. Mr. Howell sang with clarity and strength that carried to the back of the hall and a free and open sound which could have gone on forever. Mr. Howell’s character acted as the “herald,” bringing news of all sorts and setting up the scenes.
Mr. Howell was equally matched onstage by mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek, whose rich flexible voice has led her through repertoire ranging from Rossini to Wagner. As the long-suffering wife of Hercules, Ms. Meek’s character elicits much of the drama in the work, and in this case sang with warmth and suppleness in some fiendishly difficult passages. Ms. Meek’s third act aria, clearly the most difficult aria of the opera, demanded both abrupt changes in style and racing runs, which Ms. Meeks accomplished with seemingly no need to breathe.
The source of her angst, Hercules, was sung by bass Mischa Bouvier, who cut a young, suave, and assured Hercules with his role well in hand. His second act aria, accompanied by a pair of oboes (played by Marsha Heller and Sarah Davol) gave Mr. Bouvier the opportunity to demonstrate his precision in singing exactly with the orchestra. Handel does not use the repetitive patterns of Bach; this opera moves along with recitative and melodic “airs.” All of the singers moved the recitative quickly along, and communicated well with one another onstage.
One can expect a sparkly soprano in any Handel extended work, and this vocal style appeared in the character of Iöle, the wife of Hercules’ son. Soprano Jolle Greenleaf approached this role with an almost vibratoless tone, which took getting used to, but a style which worked in the dramatic high point of her role, the air “Think what ills the jealous prove.” Ms. Greenleaf was also exquisitely accompanied by a solo string quartet (the principals of all the string sections) in the air “How blest the maid ordained to dwell.” Her two duets with Ms. Meeks and tenor Michael Colvin (the only solo ensemble numbers in the work) were also very well performed with style and grace.
For this concert, Dr. Tang Yuk assembled an orchestra of professional players who, although they likely only began rehearsing this past week, played as though they had been playing together forever. The orchestra was a little bottom-heavy, aided by the continuo combination of harpsichordist Lynda Saponara, cellist Lindy Clark and contrabassist John Feeney, but the ensemble overall was crisp and clean, especially in the instrumental sinfonias and overtures. Dr. Tang Yuk elicited a number of nice uniform crescendi and kept the mood of the instruments appropriate to the action of the drama.
The Glee Club seemed to only sing sporadically, but their choruses were well blended and clean. As the “Chorus of Trachinians,” the Glee Club closed the scenes and acts with its commentary on the action. The smoothly blended sound of the ensemble, and especially the clean soprano sound, conveyed well the chordal style of some choruses and the very unusual (for Handel) disparate choruses toward the end of the work.
The Handel Festival featured several performances, including an organ recital and a concert of solo voices looking at the “life and musical times of Handel.” The entire Festival seemed to be a great reflection on the University Music Department, and its closing concert was a tour d’force appropriate to the composer being celebrated.
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