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.
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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
just as the composers conceived of them. Moreover, she mastered the
difficult art of singing in English -- or just about any language required
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
understand what she's singing about. Although the program precludes
complete Bach cantatas, fans of sheer singing should get pleasure from
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
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,
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,
he's not man enough for a real woman -- i.e. Dejanira herself.
Touches like this throughout the opera give deeper meaning to relatively
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)