I was never much for baroque music. I did make exceptions, though—as a school-age violinist, I liked to play Bach and Vivaldi because they kept string players very busy. And when I discovered opera as a teenager, that year’s hot recording was the New York City Opera version of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” starring Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. It didn’t matter to me that this was a version patched together by conductor Julius Rudel that made baroque scholars howl, what with the re-ordering and musical transposition of arias. Along with nearly every opera fan I knew, I listened to Cleopatra’s arias over and over again, just to hear Beverly Sills’ ornamentation and her ability to seemingly turn trills inside out. Aside from that, I found baroque music and especially baroque opera rather boring—it struck me as too repetitious and too much “stand and sing.”
Then, because of the work I started doing several years ago, I fell in love with baroque opera.
Let me explain: when I work as a contract attorney and not as a solo practitioner, I spend most of my time reviewing documents during the discovery phase of litigation. Since this means I’m a professional snoop looking for smoking guns, this process, always interesting at the beginning of a project, does have a tendency to become more and more routine over time. Music helps to keep me focused, but there’s a hitch—there are certain things I just can’t listen to while I’m working. For example, Mahler is OK, but Wagner is too cold; French and Italian opera are perfect, but Britten is out because his operas are in English, which is far too distracting (a major pain when I had a ticket to the Met’s new production of “Peter Grimes” and couldn’t brush up before the performance). Jazz is fine as are Broadway cast albums, and Stravinsky, especially “The Rite of Spring” can always keep me going. And baroque opera goes well not only with doc review, but on the commuter train in the morning when all is mostly quiet and “gentle” is the word.
I’m really enjoying Handel these days. He always takes non-obvious choices in his writing—you think you know where he’s going with a phrase and he’ll take a 90-degree turn instead. His “Alcina” is a wonderful work, filled with great opportunities for singers and the usual quotient of gender-bending trouser roles, but for me the highlight is Morgana’s gorgeous “Ama sospiri.” Natalie Dessay puts it away here:
I’m also getting more familiar with “Ariodante.” I’ll be writing more about Joyce DiDonato in the future, but for now take a moment to listen to her “Dopo notte” from that opera. The musicianship and artistry that mark this performance are amazing.
I still love “Giulio Cesare,” especially the recent Glyndebourne production reminiscent of the British raj. David McVicar staged it Bollywood style, and it’s a total hoot. This is available on DVD, and it’s more fun to watch than most movies. William Christie is the conductor, and the singers include Sarah Connolly (an excellent Caesar), Patricia Bardon (a refreshingly young Cornelia), Christopher Dumaux (wonderfully bitchy as Ptolemy), Angelika Kirschlager (hot-headed Sesto) and as Cleopatra, Danielle DeNiese–not known as Dancin’ Danielle for nothing–here at the conclusion of “Da tempeste.”
I just ordered a recording of Vivaldi’s “Ercole sul Termondonte” which features not only Ms. DiDonato and a bunch of crackerjack singers—there’s also Philippe Jaroussky, a countertenor who sings in the soprano range. Even after you’ve heard it, you won’t believe it. I’ll be reporting back.