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Handel, Overture and Ballet Music from 'Alcina,' 'Gloria,' 'Acis and Galatea.' Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, Lincoln Center, New York (ME).

Well, what a coil is here; the festival's own orchestra having gone on strike, then agreeing to a very similar deal to one they'd rejected previously, their cancelled concerts not reinstated – the gloomy spaces of the center resounding to 'Yah boo, sucks to you,' it was left to this superb West Coast ensemble, the U.S.A. equivalent of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under its British conductor, and prominently featuring a British singer, to hold the central features of the festival together. And yet… and yet… critics from the London contingent of what the Lincoln Center would no doubt refer to as 'Our major media' were conspicuous by their absence, as indeed were the hordes of U.S. critics I had expected to encounter. They did not know what they were missing.

It is quite an experience for someone used to attending, say, the Wigmore or Barbican halls on a regular basis, to be present at a 'show' here (and I choose the term carefully.) At the former venue, the atmosphere is almost reverential, the conversation revolves around the music, and at both halls there is silence during the performances (and one does not have to stamp one's Manolos to get press tickets.) Here at Alice Tully Hall, many of the audience seem to regard the instrumental passages as convenient interludes during which they can resume their chatter concerning their cardiologist, their Pilates workouts or their cousin Bruce in Milwaukee, and even during intervals and pauses, matters musical hardly feature as a conversational staple.

The evening's major work was preceded by the Overture and Ballet Music from 'Alcina' and the New York première (a.k.a. the première, because as anyone in New York knows, if it hasn't happened here…) of the cantata 'Gloria,' unearthed at the Royal College of Music in 2000. You could hardly wish for a more rousing, engrossing introduction to Handel than the 'Alcina' music, played as it was with this conductor's instantly recognizable combination of the elegant and the earthy, and the 'Gloria' which followed it was performed with equal verve and commitment. Handel appears to have written the piece when he was around 22, and it shows; it's a real young man's work, full of glittering effects and demanding near-impossible feats of virtuosity from the soloist. Dominque Labelle's repertoire includes Lucia, and I had no difficulty in imagining her in that role, since her voice is large, brilliant, agile and soundly placed, but I felt that on this occasion she was a little lacking in the ideal fluency for this admittedly fiendish piece, and her phrasing was somewhat hectic. If you're used to, say, Emma Kirkby, you would find Ms Labelle perhaps a little lacking in lightness: she was at her best in the more sombre passages, and gave an affecting account of the 'Quoniam tu solus Sanctus.'

Unlike the 'Gloria' and many of Handel's other works, 'Acis and Galatea' has not needed exhumation, having been performed regularly for over two hundred years, and it's easy to see why. This evening's version was Mozart's arrangement of the work, adding a bassoon and pairs of horns, flutes and clarinets; often sung in German, here McGegan had rightly opted to have it performed in English, and just in case those pesky English consonants proved too much, a libretto was thoughtfully provided for each of the audience.

The choral singing was provided by the Dessoff choirs, and they were superb; their music director, Kent Tritle, has achieved that perfect combination of steely accuracy with apparent boundless ease and enthusiasm, and the conductor clearly relished working with them – their attack at 'Oh, the pleasure of the plains,' the precise yet mellifluous blending of the parts in 'Wretched lovers!' and most of all their tender 'Mourn, all ye Muses!' provided object lessons in the singing of English choral music, 'neither harsh nor grating, but of ample power to chasten and subdue.'

The four soloists formed a pleasing balance of the experienced and the nascent, and they all shared the ability to treat this libretto, and this music, with the utmost seriousness. We are in the world of nymphs 'n' sheppyherds here, in that perfect, rigidly conventional Pastoral landscape of Pope and Collins, to which the rich and burdened escape when they need a shot of the bucolic, never once, of course, engaging in any real shepherding. The characters may come straight from the pages of myth, but they are still warmly human, and in a performance with the level of commitment shown here, it is still possible to sympathize with their plight and to feel sorrow at the loss of the hopelessly heroic swain.

The voice of 18th century reason is supplied by the tenor role of Damon, engagingly taken by the very youthful Michael Slattery, making his 'Mostly Mozart' debut; he is a Juilliard graduate of great promise, with a light, agile lyric tenor which is entirely suitable for this part, and if he did not quite have the strength of tone for some of the more florid passages he made up for this with his persuasive stage manner and convincing diction: 'Would you gain the tender creature' was particularly successful. The baritone Philip Cutlip was another debutant here, and he provided a wonderfully vivid characterization of the rather slow to learn giant Poyphemus; his 'I rage, I melt, I burn' almost made you feel for the brute, and he has all the low notes needed for the part, although the voice in general is not especially varied and at times lacks a little colour in the less vivid passages.

The parts of the lovers were entrusted to experienced Handelians, although Christine Brandes' singing of Galatea, for all its vigour and commitment, sometimes sounded in need of scaling down, and one felt that the conductor had had his work cut out to convince her of the necessity for some lightness and delicacy. She is a very operatic singer, with all that that implies, and there were moments when she sounded more like a Valkyrie than a shepherdess; however, her account of 'As when the dove' was very affecting, and 'Heart, the seat of soft delight' found her finally settled down into an assured and convincing performance. She is a singer I would love to see in a fully-staged opera, since hers is clearly a genuinely dramatic presence.

John Mark Ainsley has been singing Acis for some years now; he has recorded it twice, once in Handel's original version and once in Mozart's, sung in German, so it is fascinating to hear how this 'prince of tenors' has developed in the role. The voice is, of course, heavier, richer and more heroic in timbre, but he still has the freshness of phrasing, confidence of articulation and perfect diction which mark him out as the ideal Handelian tenor, and his arias were the high points of the evening. 'Love in her eyes' can be a tortuous experience for singer and audience alike, but here the conductor had judged the tempo with fine skill, allowing the tenor room to breathe and phrase with elegance, and to display his extraordinary sensitivity to language – such phrases as 'delicious death,' 'warbling in her breath' and 'swells with soft desire' were characterized not in a general sense but with an inward feeling for the nuance of each – why, the audience even managed to achieve total, hold-your-breath silence during the final 'delicious death.'

'Love sounds the alarm' is one of those parts where Mozart's changes are most readily apparent, in that a pair of horns is added to the accompaniment to highly dramatic effect; oddly enough, the horns are set in such a way alongside the vocal line that the piece sounds at times like one of those flamboyantly virtuosic arias beloved of the castrati whose audiences would delight in their 'battles' with the horns, and Ainsley was fully up to the demands of such martial, showy music - delicious singing, to the death.

The playing throughout was of the highest quality, from an orchestra responsive to every facet of the conductor's interpretation, and I am sure that it cannot have escaped notice that this group actually seem to enjoy what they are playing; McGegan hardly ever seems to stop smiling as he conducts, and his infectious, ebullient espousal of this music is a joy to see and hear. I'd like to be able to praise the eloquent solo flautist and the superb horn players by name, but since the orchestra is not listed in the programme, and the press office only provided me with a partial list, I cannot do so. Those who would like to hear an 'early instrument orchestra' playing at such a thrilling level that any arguments as to validity / authenticity are irrelevant, should make a beeline for the State Theater where the same orchestra, conductor and soloists will collaborate with Mark Morris in 'L'Allegro,' from August 14th – 17th.

Et in Arcadia Ego.

Melanie Eskenazi

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