Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Boston Early Music Festival
The Boston Early Music Festival had promised "fireworks" at its concert of Handel and Vivaldi last Saturday, which featured French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and the Cleveland-based ensemble Apollo's Fire. But even though I had already proclaimed Jaroussky "the greatest countertenor in the world" (based on his performance last summer at BEMF in Niobe) I admit I was still surprised by just how high and dazzling those fireworks turned out to be. Indeed, I think this was perhaps the event of the season, and certainly one of those concerts I'm going to remember the rest of my life.
I clearly wasn't alone in my assessment of Jaroussky - Emmanuel Church was packed to the rafters for the concert. And I was delighted to discover that Apollo's Fire, led by the charming Jeannette Sorrell, more than lived up to its advance billing as one of the country's best period bands. The ensemble perhaps has no clearly distinguishing interpretive profile, but it has a simply wonderful sense of - well, ensemble; Sorrell drew from her players a consistently rich and subtle sound in two Vivaldi concerti as well as her own newly-minted concerto drawn from the composer's trio sonata "La Follia." The highlights of the playing - probably the moving "Larghetto e spiritoso" of the Op. 3, No. 8 concerto, and the rising force of "La Follia" - did reveal a star among the players in lead violinist Olivier Brault, who at times seemed to almost co-conduct with Ms. Sorrell. Something tells me we'll be hearing more from Mr. Brault in his own solo showcase eventually.
Wonderful as Apollo's Fire turned out to be, they themselves seemed somewhat awed by Jaroussky (who for his part didn't swan about like some diva, but was utterly deferential to the other artists on the stage). He was perhaps in even finer voice than he was last summer - or perhaps Niobe simply didn't offer an opportunity for the display of quite everything he can do. For the arias he had chosen here often lofted into coloratura territory, where most countertenors fear to tread, but where by now Jaroussky knows he sounds like an angel. He simply seems to have it all - a meltingly pure tone, exquisitely nimble ornamentation, utter dynamic control (he can glide from a cry to a whisper in an instant), and a heartfelt touch that never seems to desert him; for all his seeming flamboyance, Jaroussky never seems to be showboating; he simply pushes the music as far as it can go.
Early numbers, such as "Agitato da fire tempeste" from Handel's Oreste, flared with coloratura fire, but I found myself still most moved by Jaroussky's limpid renderings of lament, such as "Ho perso il caro ben" from Handel's Parnasso in Festa and the softer-than-soft "Potessero i sospir miei" from Imeneo.
I've never heard either of those operas in full, and these performances made me long to. Still, the "argument" of the concert, if you will, was that Vivaldi's operas, which have long languished in obscurity, deserve the same revival that Handel's have enjoyed in the past quarter-century or so. And judging from the vocal marvels Jaroussky unveiled here, I'm inclined (at least at first blush) to agree.
The lyrical flights of "Se mai senti spirati sul volto" from Catone in Utica, which are meant to evoke the flutter of a melancholy breeze (you can listen to Jaroussky sing it with another ensemble above), were utterly transporting, while the yearning vocal line of "Vedrò con mio diletto" (from Giustino) - set to a hushed pizzicato accompaniment from Apollo's Fire - was all but heart-breaking. There were even more riches in the (three) encores - although perhaps the last, a lush rendering of "Ombra mai fu" from Xerxes, was the highlight. By that time, however, the crowd was almost hoarse from cheering and stamping its feet. I've heard through back channels that Jaroussky greatly enjoyed his experience in Niobe, and certainly he has found sympathetic, kindred spirits in Apollo's Fire. Could another large project be in the offing - perhaps even of one of Vivaldi's lost operas? Let's all hope so.