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Spectacular Opening to Early Music Festival

Carl: Box coming soon...Handel's Teseo conducted and directed by Nicholas McGegan, highlights the Boston Early Music Festival; reviewed on May 30; two further performances tonight and tomorrow at 8pm at the Boston College Theatre Arts Center (at the end of the "B" Green Line); Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, performed by Banchetto Musicale under Martin Pearlman, Jordan Hall, June 2.

"In seeing, touching, tasting, we reach through the sensation to an object, to a thing," writes Victor Zuckerkandl in Sound and Symbol.

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"Tone is the only sensation not that of a thing. In the case of color, hardness, odor, we ask, What is it that possesses the color, the hardness, the odor ...? Sensations are our answer to the world as given. Seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, we respond to its physicality, its materiality.... Because music exists, the tangible and visible cannot be the whole of the given world. The intangible and invisible is itself a part of this world, something we encounter, something to which we respond."

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Music, in Zuckerkandl'e eye, opens the door to that which is intangible but essential; it "pierces to the core of the phenomenon." There are two composers in whose work we see this transcendent quality of music most compellingly illuminmated: One is Mozart, the other Handel.

When we listen to Mozart's characters we do not merely sense them; we become one with them. As Guglielmo overcomes Dorabella in Il core vi dono, as Cherubino reveals his yearnings in Voi che sapete, as the Countess reflects wistfully on a seemingly lost past in Dove sono, never letting a hopeful C major displace the insecurity of the mournful C minor, we cease to be mere observers: We become participants in a drama whose truth -- elusive though it may seem in image, action, or word -- is fathomed through tones which cannot lie.

So it is with Handel's greatest characters. Among the more telling of Handel's later works one may pick out Jephtha which recounts the Old Testament story of the warrior who, having promised to sacrifice whomever he sees first on returning from battle, encounters first his daughter. The depth of recitatives such as "deeper and deeper still" and "Hide then those hated beams" cannot be surpassed: The listener is necessarily disturbed by the all-encompassing anguish from which he cannot escape.

Teseo, completed towards the end of 1712, 39 years earlier, is clearly a less mature work. It was conceived as a "magic" opera, complete with elaborate scenery and machinery, in the hope of repeating the success of Rinaldo the previous year. It is in many ways structurally clumsy, which makes for periods of looseness in dramatic flow; character studies are, nonetheless penetrating, and none more so than that of Medea.

Perhaps the power of this role inspired Nancy Armstrong to a performance of both brilliance and depth. Medea, like Mozart's Queen of the Night, is no stock character of "simple" evil; there are many hues to her darkness and, although by opera's end there is little light remaining in her, there is a humanity to her condition which grabs our attention: Medea has, after all, been reduced to bitterness by failures of love; she is, furthermore, never to get Teseo, whom she craves.

When first we meet her we could well be in the regal presence of Mozart's Countess. Armstrong's Dolce riposo was indeed thoughtful; nobility of voice, purity of tone evoked sympathy more than alarm.

It takes only a few more pages, however, for Medea to totally lose control. For Ira, sdegno, e furore Armstrong laid on a display of superb vocal control to deliver the maximum bile from every syllable of bite. An angry battle in the orchestra marks the transition from jealousy to resolve. Armstrong's voice reveals the increased danger of focused determination on O stringer`o nel' sen'. With a tightly modulated color of crystalline-clear black, she launches into a "R`ecitativo Orrido con' Strom'enti," in which ghosts are summoned to obscure the sun and torment her rival, Agilea. The following aria, Sibillando, Ululando, was stunning, precision and clarity of enunciation endowing the hypnotically-flowing essay in onomatopoeia with mesmerizing strength; spirits emerge to threaten as Agilea is ensnared in music which, for the moment, insists that Medea reign supreme.

Medea's final desperate ruse is to pretend to forgive her rival, with the intention of quietly poisoning her lover instead. The words of forgiveness are smooth, too smooth to hide the ill-disguised hatred which Armstrong masterfully presents: Latent under every breath in the presence of Agilea, fully emergent and sinister in a rendition of Uno' Morir; m`a vendicata that dances with danger; Armstrong's coloration here was particularly remarkable. Her presence on stage was striking, and the drama in action as well as voice dissipated the static atmosphere which at times might otherwise have stultified the production.

Other performances were all solid. Judith Nelson's Agilea was spirited; her first aria, E pur' bello was freshly sung while Deh serbate which follows closely behind, came across as an open outpouring of quintessentially Handelian depth and beauty. Supported by a pensive oboe accompaniment, Nelson also brought a Mozartean smile to lead her audience to find rapture in sorrow and terror. Her Vieni, torna Idolo mio was the essence of gentleness and sweetness, while Amarti io si vorrei was profoundly moving.

Teseo, the object of Medea's desire and Agilea's love, was sung by Randall Wong, not a counter-tenor but a sopranist, with a voice hard to distinguish from that of a female soprano; probably the closest we can get to a castrato sound without the performance of certain unpleasant surgical operations. If we are persuaded by the Jungian observation that every man has an unconscious feminine side to his personality, then the soprano voice becomes a logical medium to convey the "very soft emotional life" Jung attributed to men.

The lulling lute and easy naturalness of Wong's voice allowed Teseo's declaration of love, Quanto che `a m`e sian' care to be uninhibited and therefore convincing.

Christine Armistead and Drew Minter were a well-balanced pair for the parts of Clitia and Arcane -- another couple of lovers on hand to provide added diversion. Armistead made Clitia quite a tease with the racy number Ti credo si ben' mio; Minter's Arcane provided a purely passionate response in Ah cruda Gelosia.

Nicholas McGegan conducted the newly formed Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, producing a crisp sound ideal to Handel. Instrumental voices were well defined, but the whole was sharply coordinated and pleasing. Tensions in the drama were exploited to maximum psychological effect, aided by a close relationship with the singers.

McGegan made the evening a long one by presenting the full original text, its less inspired sections along with its measures of genius; at times this became tiring. But, McGegan's attempt to faithfully reproduce the original production also provided stylized (ad absurdum) costumes and scenery to provide an intriguing glimpse of what Handel's patrons might have witnessed at the Queen's Theatre, Haymarket.

Clever effects transport us to Heaven and Hell, characters descend out of the skies, furies dance, and a "Horrid Monster" (Gale Ormiston) turns up to entertain. But, most importantly, the music was magical: The audience experienced the rebirth of a work too-long neglected and Handelian melodies which we may hum less readily than those of Verdi, but which strike the subconscious with a power none other than Mozart was ever to achieve again.

Yesterday afternoon Banchetto Musicale presented Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato in Jordan Hall. The texts of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso were written in 1631 by John Milton. "The first of these poems," writes Martin Pearlman in a program note, "depicts the joys of the active, or extroverted life, the second the joys of the contemplative, or introverted life." Charles Jennens, librettist for Messiah, adapted Milton's work for Handel's use, and also added a third section, Il Moderato "representing the golden mean between L'Allegro and Il Penseroso."

Banchetto provided a lively performance; their brand of "original sound" is fuller than that of some early music groups, giving the ensemble the body as well as precision needed to give substance to the imagery of this work. The warmth of Daniel Stepner's baroque violin playing complemented the clarity of Martin Pearlman's harpsichord, and there was other wonderful solo work as well.

The discovery of the evening was Sharon Baker, a soprano with a bright and attractive voice well-cast for L'allegro and an interesting foil to the more mature sound of Nancy Armstrong in Il Penseroso. Among many enjoyable arias, her "And ever against eating cares" was particularly delightful.

Nancy Armstrong, meanwhile, appearing in the middle of her Teseo performances, was still on top form; her rendition of "Sweet bird, that shun'st the noise of folly" was idyllic and made the more so by the inspired baroque flute playing -- simple and direct -- of Christopher Krueger, highlighted by a gossamer lightness and sensitivity in the strings.

James Maddelena provided an evocative baritone voice which went especally well when matched against the chorus; his aria on the theme "Mirth, admit me of thy crew!" got off to a rollicking start, and was nicely accompanied by Jean Rife on natural horn.

Sergio Pelacani, counter-tenor was disappointing: his diction was muddy, and not on a par with the other singers. Frank Kelley, the tenor, did not always show the strongest of voices, but provided the most touching of endings to Il Moderato, in duet with Sharon Baker. The soft, contemplative nature of this conclusion brings to question whether Handel was content to settle on "moderation" at all: This is the only duet of the work, and it combines a personal, human side with intellectual reflection. Rather than having arrived at a "mean," we had been taken from thesis through antithesis to a synthesis, not an average of, but greater than the sum of the parts, representing a new harmony to transcend the old differences.

Jonathan Richmond->