Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Old Empire

April 30, 2011

Ian Bostridge Photo: Ben Ealovega 2010

The concluding performance of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s season took place on Friday with a visit from Bernard Labadie and his crackerjack Canadian Baroque ensemble Les Violons du Roy. And though that is enough in and of itself, they weren’t alone, bringing along British tenor Ian Bostridge. The program wasn’t surprising—Handel, Vivaldi and a stray Geminiani or Caldara bit here or there. What was a bit unusual is that this is not necessarily the first music one thinks of when one thinks of Bostridge. Or at least I don’t. The tenor has risen as one of the best known tenors of his age, but this has been largely in the works of Britten, Schubert, and Mozart. And while he’s no stranger to Baroque music, having recorded both Handel and Monteverdi, it has not been the mainstay of his repertoire. So in some ways, this show might have been an ideal setting for him to branch out. There are few ensembles as satisfying as Les Violons du Roy. Playing modern instruments with historical performance techniques, they produce a hybrid sound that is both stable and powerful but still related to the past. The evening opened with a suite from one of Handel’s best operas, Alcina, which was one of the highlights of the whole night. The playing in conerto grossi from Handel and Geminiani was equally brisk and lively and sounded warm and full in the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The arias on the program were predominantly those of Handel and Vivaldi. Bostridge opened with two different settings of the same text from Tamerlano, one from Handel and another from Francesco Gasparini. But from the outset it was clear that as admirable as Bostridge’s singing is, it wasn’t completely satisfying. Technically, he made much more of the coloratura runs than many tenors I’ve seen who regularly perform Baroque works. His vocal leaps were clean more often than not and he avoided losing track rhythmically. But Bostridge never felt like he was invested in the characters or emotions of the texts, however. Granted, Baroque operas are not known for their unique or identifiable themes and plots. But these arias often felt unattached to anything. Bostridge’s gaunt frame and lack of other physical involvement than some minor contortions only heightened the effect. Probably the most successful pieces in the vocal component of the program were “La tiranna” from Vivaldi’s Arsilda, Regina di Ponto with its unusual rhythmic elements and Handel’s “From celestial seats descending” from Hercules. This latter lovely work is more oratorio than opera and recounts Hyllus’ torn emotions between his father Hercules, and Princess Iole, whom his father has captured as a prisoner of war. And it is possible that given the more two-dimensional aspects of the drama of Hercules that made it seem a better fit for Bostridge. The dramatic range of the aria seemed more fully occupied here for some reason. Or maybe he was just saving the best for last. In any event it was a nice end to the Philharmonic Society season, which will be followed next year with perhaps one of the strongest and most star-studded season the groups has yet put together with a schedule that reads like a list of the world’s major orchestras including visits from the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra as well as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Petersburg, Baltimore and, of course, Los Angeles.


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