BACH: from Cantata 30 Freue dich, erlöste Schar - "Kommt ihr angefochtnen Sünder." From Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ - "Wie fürchtsam wankten meine Schritte."* HANDEL: Excerpts from Hercules.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo); Jayne West (soprano); The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music/Craig Smith, *John Harbison.
Avie AV2130 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:49.

During a trip to Boston, my hosts suggested that I take in a Sunday service at Emmanuel Church. I found myself in a tonier part of the city entering a church that was probably Civil-War era. I read a service program and, frankly, my heart sank, though not for the music, which included a Bach cantata, a difficult Modern motet by John Harbison, and several tasty organ interludes by Bach and Buxtehude. About the organist, I had few qualms. After all, Boston is chock full of superb organists. However, I also knew that Emmanuel did a complete Bach cantata every week, and those things aren't easy, even for professionals. How could they possibly have rehearsed enough in a week?

The performance blew all my doubts to powder. It was easily some of the best Bach I'd ever heard, even from studio recordings by celebrated groups and conductors. Emmanuel brought it off without slighting any of the other music. They sang and played everything at the highest level, and they did it every week. I went back the next week, partly to make sure I didn't walk in on a fluke, but mainly for the joy of it. It didn't take long for me to realize that, despite the first-class soloists and instrumentalists, clearly the man with the stick, Craig Smith, was the fount of all this.

The present CD counts as a double memorial for Emmanuel alumna (violist and singer) Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006) and for Craig Smith (1947-2007), as well as a celebration of an era of music-making at Emmanuel. We get two Bach cantata arias and excerpts from Handel's opera Hercules. I have a prejudice against programs of excerpts, at least as far as classical music and Bach cantatas go. I usually feel a little cheated. Bach conceived these cantatas as complete spiritual dramas, and hearing one aria falls as short as hearing one Hamlet soliloquy. The same holds true for the operas of Handel, one of the most psychologically and dramatically acute of composers. I suppose I miss the sense of buildup and context.

Lieberson, however, if not the greatest singing actress of her generation, was at least a highly intelligent one, and furthermore she could act with her voice. As a vocal technician, she had few peers. The rapid note-y runs of Handel and Bach weren't hurdles to overcome, but shades of expression, just as the composers conceived of them. Moreover, she mastered the difficult art of singing in English -- or just about any language required of her, for that matter. She didn't sound like either a parody opera singer or a mushmouth. You don't actually need a text sheet in front of you to understand what she's singing about. Although the program precludes complete Bach cantatas, fans of sheer singing should get pleasure from her rendition of these arias, as should fans of poetry read aloud. She phrases beautifully and "naturally." It's as good Bach singing as you're likely to hear.

Handel's Hercules tells the story of the hero's death. Dejanira, his wife, becomes unhinged with jealousy when the hero brings home a captive princess, Iole. Dejanira gives him a coat smeared with the blood of a centaur he killed, because the dying centaur told her that this would ensure her of her husband's love forever. Instead, it burns Hercules's flesh, and in unendurable pain, he throws himself into a funeral pyre, thus allowing Death to take him. Dejanira goes mad and kills herself.

Most of the opera deals in Baroque neoclassical types. Hercules is a Hero, his son Hyllus the Dutiful Son, Iole the Pure Maid. However, the role of Dejanira demands and gets Handel's considerable psychological perception and dramatic skills. It's one of the stellar female roles in opera, up there with Purcell's Dido and Bizet's Carmen. Fortunately, Dejanira is a mezzo and draws Lieberson as interpreter, so that even without all the other music, or even a complete scene, we get a rich portrait of a distraught and dissembling mind. Handel hints at this in Dejanira's opening aria, "The world, when day's career is run," where a standard verse (indeed, a cliché) on day vs. night/happiness vs. gloom gets some sharp, even slightly sickening dissonances in the strings. Handel tells us that Dejanira's gloom isn't merely the blues, but a symptom of deeper psychosis. She upbraids Hercules for faithlessness in "Resign thy club and lion's spoils," mocking the hero as a sissy for falling for Iole's demure grief, implying, of course, that he's not man enough for a real woman -- i.e. Dejanira herself. Touches like this throughout the opera give deeper meaning to relatively conventional arias. For example, the duet with Iole -- "Joys of freedom, joys of power" -- immediately makes us suspect that Dejanira's up to something. Of course, Handel gives us a full-blown mad scene at the end -- a scena that changes direction like a weathercock in a valley of crosswinds.

The performances all come from the Nineties. Lieberson is predictably wonderful. Again, I regret only that she doesn't do an entire Bach cantata. Soprano Jayne West, an Emmanuel stalwart I've heard live in the church, matches Lieberson in technique during the duet but doesn't get to sing as interesting music. The opera is really Dejanira's show. Craig Smith and his instrumentalists create a subtle line, sensitive to the singers. Harbison, who leads the excerpt from Bach's Cantata 33, generates slightly less flow, but you can still hear the instrument Smith wrought over all those years. If you seek his monument, just listen.

S.G.S. (December 2008)