• Conversation with Maestro Bicket and review of his Theodora US Tour in Chapel Hill

    [Opera Lively interview # 124] Opera Lively covered the Chapel Hill, North Carolina stop of Maestro Harry Bicket's and The English Concert's US tour of Handel's Theodora, featuring David Daniels, Sarah Connolly, Dorothea Röschmann, and the Trinity Choir. This report refers to the University of North Carolina Memorial Hall performance of January 30, 2014, part of the Carolina Performing Arts series, and specifically, of their HIP Festival. The tour which was coming from Sonoma and Orange counties in California, is right now at Carnegie Hall (Sunday February 2) and then returns to England, going next to Birmigham's Town Hall on February 6, then to London at the Barbican on February 8, and ends in Paris on February 14.

    Maestro Harry Bicket is especially known for his interpretation of Baroque operas, and for being since 2007 the Artistic Director of The English Concert, the exquisite period instrument ensemble that is turning 40 years old. He has been appointed the Chief Conductor of Santa Fe Opera in October 2013. He is no stranger to the Chapel Hill area, since his wife is a proud graduate of the UNC School of Public Health.

    In a conversation with others and with Opera Lively, the maestro disclosed that he has been in agreement with Carnegie Hall to bring Handel’s operas to America for the last three or four years. He believes they are weighty and marvelous pieces that are not done often enough. They are relatively cheap to produce, since Handel himself was a businessman and his own impresario who sold tickets to his own pieces, out of his house which still exists and at one point hosted Jimmy Hendrix – to general laugh the maestro added that the house is more visited nowadays for Hendrix than for Handel.

    The composer would take care of writing for just a few soloists and a small orchestra. Theodora on the other hand was officially an oratorio, which means that it has a chorus in it. The English Concert would probably never have done it on their own in tour, because of the prohibitive cost of flying the musicians and their instruments plus a large chorus. They were fortunate to have an association with the wonderful Trinity Choir of the Trinity Wall Street Church in New York City, and this marvelous chorus joined the orchestra for this tour.

    Regarding the difference between Handel’s operas and oratorios, the maestro doesn’t see a huge distinction beyond the simple fact that the operas were written in Italian and the oratorios in English. Harry dismisses all the talk about these pieces being staged or unstaged, because frankly Italian operas in England were so based on divas and star singers that he doesn’t think there was a lot of stage production when they were performed in Handel’s time. They were also given in contemporary dress, meaning that Handel’s singers were dressed in 18th century attire and did not wear togas when they were performing Giulio Cesare, which is an interesting point when people complain of updating these pieces.

    The oratorios were unstaged, but on the other hand there were many stage directions in the libretto. For example, in Theodora when Didymus goes into the prison to rescue her, the libretto says that he enters with his visor shut. It’s an interesting concept because then he needs to sing a beautiful aria! Obviously Handel wanted people to use their imagination, because his operas and oratorios were all dramatic works.

    Handel was very interested in the idea of oratory as a human right, a new concept at the time. He was very influenced by the writings of Thomas Gorges (Maine), who wrote those wonderful phrases in the Constitution that these truths are self-evident. Theodora is a piece about the ability to make some political and social commentaries through music, but also through historical analogies.

    In Theodora we have the Romans in the last throes of their power. This piece was set ten years before the time when Christianity became the official religion of Rome, in this moment that was the darkest era of persecution of Christians, before the dawn. Of course what the Romans were worried about was that if Christianity infiltrated the army, they would lose control of the army which wouldn’t do the things they were asked to do.

    Didymus is a Christian and he is in the army, and his friend Septimius is not a Christian but they have conversations about the balance of duty versus humanity. Didymus asks one of the most beautiful lines in all of Handel’s oratorios: “Ought we not to leave the free-born mind of man still ever free, since vain is the attempt to force belief with the severest instrument of death?” which is pretty contemporary, and interesting, because this is at the very beginning of the piece – within ten minutes this line is thrown out there.

    Handel had a lengthy relationship with his librettist for Theodora, Thomas Morrell. They did half a dozen oratorios together but the librettist was considered to be weak. Mr. Bicket confirms that Morrell had a bad reputation, and Theodora for many years was not considered the masterpiece that it is now. Handel himself thought it was his greatest work, and said it was better than anything he had written. It was also his biggest flaw. It had three performances, and it was an absolutely disaster. It was never revived again, at the time.

    There is a famous line by Handel that the Jews didn’t like it because it was Christian, and the women didn’t like it because it was virtuous. Handel was writing essentially for the new Jewish audience in London – we have Solomon , and Samson, all these great Jewish stories, then you have Theodora, it flops, and next he goes back to Jephtha to please his audience again.

    Thomas Morrell was a reverend but he befriended people who were seen as lowlifes, musicians, actors, therefore he was considered to be a bit rakish. There is a portrait of him by William Hogarth; they were friends. He got into writing libretti because all these pieces used actual scriptures. Handel was very tough on his librettists and engaged in long correspondence with them to tell them exactly what he wanted.

    Handel was very much an establishment figure on one level – he was friends with the King and the Prince, but he was also very concerned with issues of poverty and mental illness. When he died he left much of his estate to an orphanage in London which still exists. So he was this strange comedian, in a way. Perhaps because he wasn’t English, he was able to do this, and mix with various parts of society.

    Backing away from Theodora, next the maestro addressed his orchestra, The English Concert. The ensemble is probably the first established orchestra to start playing on original instruments. Other orchestras might be playing on ancient violins, but these violins were modified and supercharged in order to meet the demands of playing louder and longer lines. Actually if an ancient violin maker came back, he would be horrified, and would say “What have you done to my beautiful Stradivarius? What are these metal strings? Why is the tension so high? Why this chin rest? And what about that bow, what is that doing?”

    Then, people start to say “We know how these instruments were made, so, if we make one without modifying it to be modern, what happens if we try and play this music on this instrument; what does it sound like?” Of course it brings up huge questions about phrasing. You can’t do on a Baroque instrument what you try to do on a modern instrument, because it is heavier in the middle and lighter in the end. These pieces have a particular shape in the gut strings. So in that chord if we have a strong harmony or dissonance we want to make sure we do it on a down bow because that feeds into the sense of tension, and then as you go down the bow it gets lighter and you get a sense of release. The maestro said he didn’t want to be too technical about this, but this is a very simple principle.

    The instrument provides the phrasing. Instrumentalists started to notice that playing this music on the original instruments actually made it easier because everything just happened the way it should be when they used a Baroque bow – that was kind of the idea!

    The maestro is famous for a video clip where he said that the authenticity in historically informed performances is an anachronism at this point and we got passed that, now that instrumentalists who flocked to this movement are so accomplished in their playing – they should be now exclusively judged on their musical merits when compared to other orchestras. Asked to comment upon what he said on this clip, Mr. Bicket to general laugh said he isn’t sure that he was quite truthful about that. He tried to be, though; but the message he was trying to convey was that this movement was an absolutely necessary thing to do.

    He said that performances of Bach’s suites by the time we got to the 1960’s were like a ship with so many barnacles and seaweed hanging off it that it was basically very difficult to remind oneself of what was actually underneath those barnacles. The movement itself was asking – “What if we go back to basics? What if we take these instruments and find out what they are capable of doing?” “That’s a good start,” said the maestro, “and will get rid of all these fancy things you can do with a modern bow. Then, let’s go back to the original sources.”

    In many of the materials people made editorial decisions without saying that they were editorial. You see things in modern copies of the score that Bach never wrote. So there was an attempt to not do anything that wasn’t written on the original score, which is sort of nonsense, because of course in these composers’ days like in Handel’s days, there was a performance practice. The composers didn’t need to put all that information on the scores because singers and instrumentalists didn’t need it there; it’s not that it wasn’t wanted, so some of these scores had indications and sketches rather than detailed writing. It would be strange to play these pieces without some sort of filler there, but it was interesting to try and see what it would happen if the pieces were played exactly as written.

    So when you move a bow in a certain direction you might get a crescendo. Now, a crescendo is not written on the score, but the bow makes one. That was allowed, said Bicket, but if you did a crescendo where you didn’t have to, that was not allowed. Regarding dynamics, maybe you see one indication of a forte here, a piano there, but quite often on the score you have a piano that simply tells the orchestra that the singers are starting to sing and it doesn’t necessarily mean “play softly” but at other times it does mean “play softly” – these are the kind of things we need to look after, according to Mr. Bicket.

    Addressing the original point of the content of the video clip, the maestro said that what we have now is such a high technical level and a knowledge of methodology and of technique from this fourth generation players, that we can focus a bit more on the music. When you listen to the early period recordings, they are fascinating but they sometimes lack a little bit of music-making.

    For the performance practices that Handel and his musicians were following in his days, the maestro quoted as his sources violin treaties, vocal treaties talking about trills and ornamentations, and he read a lot of Handel’s contemporaries’ comments about the performances – that is, words from the very people Handel was writing for. In newspapers of the time there are comments such as “her voice is not particularly good but what she does with the text is incredible.”

    Nowadays we tend to worship the voice and singers have a huge career if they have a fabulous instrument and if they look fabulous – that helps – but in Handel’s days, it was valued as much if not more, if you could reduce people to tears with the way you connected with the text and the way you acted it, and this gives to the maestro ideas on how to bring these pieces alive.

    The maestro’s group has a program of master classes for young conductors. The entire orchestra offers master classes to student conductors and harpsichordists as well, because they have to conduct while they play the harpsichord, to learn how to do the work Mr. Bicket does. This is quite unique. He was asked to comment upon it.

    The maestro confirmed that indeed this is unique as an initiative. He conducts from the harpsichord, therefore he generally plays and at times he conducts as well, and it requires a very different relationship with the orchestra than if you are standing up there with a baton. Conducting these pieces from the harpsichord is very much chamber music and requires huge preparation. Given that the harpsichord is between the conductor and the orchestra, all that the instrumentalists see is the conductor’s head. He can do gestures with his left hand when he is playing with his right hand, but not always. So, many of the gestures are done with just a breath or a look.

    For these master classes, the orchestra is there for a whole week and during rehearsals, Mr. Bicket asks the orchestra to tell the conductor what they think of the conducting. Conducting is not a very lonely profession. You have to learn it very publicly; you can’t really practice it in the privacy of your house. You can do your moves in front of a mirror while playing your favorite recording, and all conductors do, but this doesn’t supply the orchestral side of it. So, they all learn very publicly and they make their mistakes very publicly. The art of the deal is – can you get through the first couple of years without being totally destroyed or having a nervous breakdown?

    Orchestras generally do not talk to the guest conductor; it’s sort of an unwritten rule. So you never find out if they like or don’t like what you are doing. You don’t get any feedback – nobody says “You know what, that was really good, but you talked too much and I think you were very unclear there.” So, these master classes The English Concert is providing are a quite ruthless opportunity, actually, to give to young conductors some feedback. The maestro said that when he was learning his profession, one of the best feedbacks he got was when an orchestra told him “what you are doing is what we were already doing anyway.” He finds that when the orchestra discloses this kind of thing to him, it is very useful. Often orchestras don’t know why they do certain things. A key in teaching is to be able to discover – “Why do I do that?” When you have to tell someone else, you have to find out much more about what it all is.

    Not many young conductors have applied for this [maybe it’s a bit scary, we’d say]. The last time the orchestra offered this training, they had a couple of students from Juilliard, a couple from a conservatory in Basel, and a couple from London. They come and spend a week with The English Concert. The maestro believes that more students should come, because it’s an opportunity to experiment and to make mistakes and learn from them.

    Back to talking about his tour, the maestro mentioned that he did Radamisto for Carnegie Hall last year [editor’s note – that performance featuring David Daniels and Luca Pisaroni was selected by The New York Times as the best of the year], and is doing Theodora now, also because it is a piece very dear to his heart. He was involved with the famous revival of the 1996 Glyndebourne production directed by Peter Sellars, and it was his big career break.

    He was there just as the assistant conductor but the principal fell ill, and Mr. Bicket took over a number of performances. Usually in this situation if someone falls ill, they will bring a conductor from outside, but no one new Theodora, then the manager asked – “Who knows it? Harry who?” They reluctantly let him conduct it, and it was a great success.

    Glyndebourne has incredible high standards but is in this country house in the middle of nowhere and it is small, so the maestro was surprised to see that in his audience there were famous conductors, including James Levine. His performance opened doors to him, and next he was in Munich. That production was also where Mr. Bicket met the famous countertenor David Daniels for the first time, who was what he called “a new boy” in 1996, as well as the wonderful Dawn Upshaw and Peter Sellars, people he continued to work with through the years, not to forget the great Lorraine Hunt who had an untimely death.

    What is next for The English Concert is that they will do Alcina in October with Joyce DiDonato, and possibly Orlando after that, although for the latter they are still talking. They are trying to find pieces that are not necessarily overdone. Alcina has been done enough, but Theodora and Orlando, not so much. He added that if he is asked, he will be delighted to bring these pieces to Chapel Hill as well. These projects have such logistics that when they put it all together, doing more performances in other places is a bonus for them. These are huge pieces and once you put them together, you want to do them as much as you can.

    Opera Lively asked the maestro about his Santa Fe tenure. In his first contract year, Fidelio will be his only piece this summer, given that the other four operas scheduled for the season will get guest conductors. We were curious to know if now that he has been hired as Santa Fe’s chief conductor, the company will shift in the near future a bit more towards early opera.

    He doesn’t think so. He has conducted four early operas for Santa Fe over the years – some Handels, and Rameau’s Platée as well. His task as the chief conductor, not the artistic director, will be to look after the orchestra and he doesn’t plan on trying to influence the programming. Santa Fe is a very huge space and these operas were written for small rooms. They do work in big spaces – he’s done a number of them at the Met, Covent Garden, and Munich, but you have to be quite careful with which ones you pick, since not all of them can take that kind of stage size.

    The maestro added that before he became a Handel specialist, he was conducting Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini. He has secure roots with them and loves them. The maestro told us a funny story: that while he was involved with the other composers early in his career, he conducted a couple of Handels, and just one year later he did another one and got a review calling him “Harry Bicket, the veteran Handel conductor.” It happened overnight! Now he does acknowledge that he is supposedly an expert in this repertory, but it is never exclusive, and he actually looks forward to doing some other things as well.

    About the ongoing Handel revival, the maestro said that there were some iconic productions. In 1985 for the composer’s 300th anniversary of birth there was a wonderful production of Xerxes by Nicholas Hytner who was a star director at the National Theater in London with a wonderful cast, and they thought it would just be a one-off. It was a brilliant production and it is still going and being revived a number of times. That was the first time people started saying “These are good operas!”

    In the 18th century you stopped someone on the streets and asked “What does Mr. Handel do?” they’d say “He writes opera.” You do that now and people will say “The Messiah; worship music…” and no one will say opera, but he was the most famous opera composer in his day. The maestro added that when they first thought of putting his operas on stage in the modern age, people would say, “Oh God, what are you doing? They are dramaturgic dead ends.” Now, directors have found ways to deal with da capo arias and various other aspects. These operas seem rigid, but actually when they are well staged, they are not.

    In the old days the singer would be alone on stage, but nowadays everybody else is on stage and it is all very interactive. There are also very good singers. James Levine said last year: “To cast a Handel opera now, you have such a wide range of great singers! You try to do that for a Verdi opera, it’s almost impossible for me to get the same kind of talented singers in all roles to sing Verdi.” And also, opera houses look for new repertoire, and as far as the public is considered, these Handel pieces are new repertoire. These are pieces that have not been done. People might be afraid of going to a new piece, but with Handel the music is so direct, and personal, and deeply touching!

    The maestro was asked about the balance between woodwinds and strings in a Handelian orchestra. He said that when Handel had the money, he employed more woodwind. Someone like Rameau had a lot of money – not his own, of course – so he employed these huge French orchestras with 25 strings, 9 oboes, 15 bassoons, and that was the sound. Handel was a good businessman and if he didn’t have the money then he would write for 2 oboes, 2 horns…

    Someone asked the maestro: since he mentioned David Daniels as the new boy two decades ago, who is the new boy now? If he had to put his money on someone, said maestro Bicket, it would be Iestyn Davies – a Welsh name [editor’s note – he is known to us as Trinculo in the Met’s The Tempest]. He is absolutely already terrific. He is going to sing in Orlando with The English Concert in one year or so. He is a wonderful natural singer and a beautiful musician, and good looking.

    Finally, one of the UNC students wanted the maestro to give him career advice on how to become a successful musician. Mr. Bicket advised the student to do everything; every single job that comes his way. The maestro had his lucky break at Glyndebourne in 1996, but he was in London since 1993 and in between that time he played in bars, in violin lessons, in singing lessons, as a pianist for orchestras, and worked in an opera house. He would do anything and everything, and it all turned out to be beneficial, not just in terms of who he is musically, but also due to the people he met.

    “You find your way into a world and ultimately you end up knowing quite a lot of people”, said Bicket. He played the harpsichord for The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock for the first time, without ever having played it before, exclusively because he knew someone who worked for the orchestra fixing their instruments. He went into this rehearsal very nervously and during the break Trevor gave him gentle advise that while playing the harpsichord he had to spread his fingers downwards instead of upwards – he said “Oh, thank you” – and that’s how he started, because he knew the fixer from her having fixed one of the instruments he used to play in a bar.

    Harry said to the student: “Don’t be proud; just take the work because you will learn something and you will meet someone, and even the bad experiences are worth it. It’s a very tough profession and if you can’t cope with all that, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it, which is valid for all professions.”

    Photo Credit Richard Haughton

    Maestro Harry Bicket came across in this fascinating talk as a delightful man who is gentle, kind, and with a sense of humor, and a very well informed musician. We felt privileged for being able to interact with him, before the performance.


    Then, we all headed to Memorial Hall, ready to take on the four hours of Handel’s own favorite oratorio Theodora, with the stellar cast that included countertenor David Daniels as Didymus, soprano Dorothea Röschmann in the title role, the spectacular mezzo Sarah Connolly as Irene (Opera Lively interviewed her in person for 75 minutes – this insightful piece will be published soon), tenor Kurt Streit as Septimius, and bass-baritone Neal Davies as Valens, with The Trinity Choir, The English Concert, and maestro Harry Bicket, of course, as described above.

    First of all, we must say that rarely if ever, the operatic environment in North Carolina received such a spectacular cast of singers on the same evening, and we are very thankful to Carolina Performing Arts for that. Let’s talk briefly about these singers.

    Photo Credit Peter Warr

    British mezzo Sarah Connolly is simply one of our favorite singers, with formidable performances such as her title role for Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, released on blu-ray disc and DVD and arguably one of the best operatic video recordings of all time, in David McVicar’s wicked production that also featured the lovely Danielle de Niese.

    Ms. Connolly’s career has had some iconic performances that have earned her the highest level of acclaim, such as being considered to be the best singer in a whole Ring cycle, when she interpreted Fricka for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. At the Met we saw her as the Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos and as Clairon in Capriccio alongside Renée Fleming. Other than her ground-breaking Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne above mentioned, she was also Brangäne there, in Tristan und Isolde. She is spectacular as Dido in the recent blu-ray disc of Dido and Aeneas from Covent Garden also given at La Scala, and her title role in The Rape of Lucretia for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was also released on DVD. Ms. Connolly, a Commander of the British Empire and the recipient of many operatic honors, is an intelligent and insightful singer with many other items in her discography and videography, and numerous other roles under her belt in the best houses of the world. This is an artist of the first magnitude, and we rarely see someone like her in our state. Do stay tuned for her gorgeous interview with Opera Lively where she shares with us striking insights about Theodora and other operas, coming soon after transcription and revision.

    David Daniels is arguably the most successful countertenor of his generation, with a prestigious career that over the past almost two decades has enabled him, just like Ms. Connolly, to record a very extensive discography and videography, and to perform the most important roles of his repertory in the most prestigious companies of the world. We had the pleasure of seeing him live in Santa Fe last summer when he created the role of Oscar for the opera’s world premiere. We also saw him live last year at the Met interpreting Giulio Cesare in the same McVicar production Ms. Connolly did for Glyndebourne, this time alongside Natalie Dessay. Other Met appearances for him have included the title roles in Gluck’s Orfeo, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bertarido in Rodelinda, and his fabulous Prospero in The Enchanted Island which was shown around the world on Met in HD and was recently released on DVD. The iconic production of Theodora at Glyndebourne mentioned by maestro Bicket was also released in a must-buy DVD. He is not only a regular at the Met but has numerous important credits at Covent Garden, La Scala, Munich, Vienna, Barcelona, and Paris. Again, it is not every day that we listen to someone of Mr. Daniels stature in Chapel Hill.

    Again, this star-studded line-up includes another veteran of the world’s most prestigious stages, in the person of soprano Dorothea Rötschmann, who has sung Susanna, Pamina, Donna Elvira, and Ilia for the Metropolitan Opera; Pamina, Fiordiligi, and Countess Almaviva at La Scala; Susanna and Countess Almaviva for the Vienna State Opera; and no fewer than eight roles for the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin, as well as seven more for the Salzburg Festival. Concert performances have included heavy weights such as the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle and maestro Haitink, the Vienna Philharmonic with Boulez, Harnoncourt, and Barenboim, and the New York Philharmonic with Sir Colin Davis, among many others.

    Grammy award-winning bass-baritone Neal Davies is not behind his counterparts either, with eleven opera and concert recordings on CD; concerts with elite maestros such as Mariss Jansons, Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, William Christie, and Daniel Harding, and two operatic roles for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, four for the English National Opera, one for the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, one for Paris, one for the Salzburg festival, two for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, plus numerous other European houses, including a performance of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas in Aix-en-Provence that was released on DVD.

    Austrian-American tenor Kurt Streit substituted for Andrew Kennedy who was initially scheduled for this performance. Just to give our readers a taste of how formidable this tour is, a replacement singer boasts himself quite a resume, with roles under his belt at Paris Opera in Rodelinda which he also did at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and in Glyndebourne, performances in Semele and Tamerlano at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and numerous other roles in Amsterdam, Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, Geneva, Berlin, and Zurich.

    Memorial Hall was full to the brink with an excited and respectful audience. It was a remarkable musical evening, as expected. We were extremely impressed with both the orchestra with their delicate and precise delivery, and with the angelical-sounding chorus. The principal singers Ms. Rötschmann, Ms. Connolly, and Mr. Daniels were all three sublime and unforgettable. Mr. Streit and Mr. Davies provided solid comprimario support, although the only aspect that didn’t entirely please us in this show was a bit of a shouty delivery by the latter – we’ve heard the role of President Valens being performed with just as much authority and weight, but in a less harsh manner.

    Theodora opens relatively slow and solemn with long scenes for the male voice, but catches fire in its 15th number (3rd scene) that comes in the middle of the first act, Irene’s jumpy and rhythmic air “Bane of virtue, nurse of passions” which was delivered with great aplomb by Ms. Connolly. It is interesting to notice in this oratorio that it keeps getting better and better, with, in our opinion, act II being more compelling than act I, and act III being even superior to act II. This is not to say that act I is not also full of incredibly beautiful music – in Ms. Connolly’s words in her interview with us, only Handel can pack no fewer than forty extremely successful melodies in a 3-act oratorio.

    Another favorite number of ours, is the delicate, piano “As with rosy steps the morn” for Irene, did justice to Ms. Connolly’s statement to us that it is her favorite piece among those she sings in her role. Also exquisite is the moment when the orchestra for the first time accompanies a recitative, rather than just the bass line: it’s “Oh, worse than death indeed” for Theodora, followed in scene 5 by the very melodious “Angels , ever bright and fair” that Ms. Rötschmann sang so well that she brought tears to our eyes.

    It was then Mr. Daniels time to shine, with the long musical phrases, tempo changes, and dynamic changes of the difficult da capo aria “Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care” for Didymus at the end of scene 6. The countertenor was simply phenomenal in his interpretation of this virtuoso piece.

    Act II brought us the beautiful flute solo that opens the second scene, and Ms. Rötschmann again dazzled with her “With darkness deep, as is my woe” which is very appropriate to her voice, allowing her to display perfect pitch control and a secure range from low to soaring high. This piece is sandwiched between the above mentioned solo flute, and another one at its end, adding to its eerie beauty.

    Mr. Daniels gifts were again in display while engaging in the brisk rhythm of “Though the honours that Flora and Venus receive” in the third scene. He was a bit cold and subdued in the first section of his next aria “Deeds of kindness to display” but then rapidly progressed to conveying deep emotions in the da capo section.

    Some of the recitative accompagnato at the end of the fifth scene of act II was cut from this performance, for brevity (we were already scheduled to be done close to midnight, on a weekday evening). The duet between Theodora and Didymus at the end of act II was very well done by the two singers, leading us to what is arguably the best number in the entire oratorio, the chorus piece “He saw the lovely youth, death’s early prey” which Handel considered better than his “Hallelujah” in the Messiah. Goosebumps hit us all.

    During intermission we were able to chat briefly with the instrumentalist who showed his beautiful theorbo to some members of the audience.

    Ms. Connolly again delivered an emotional da capo aria in the first scene of act III, “Lord, to Thee each night and day”. A fully warmed-up Ms. Röschmann was spectacular in “When sunk in anguish and despair” – and this was followed by both singers dialoguing efficiently in their duet “Whither, Princess, do you fly… No, no, Irene, No” with their alternating “oh stay” and “duty calls, I must obey” – another great moment of acting with their voices.

    Another one of Ms. Connolly’s favorite pieces came next, the paradoxically melancholic aria in a minor scale while it talks about joy, which was definitely one of the singing highlights of the evening with silky, dart tones: “New scenes of joy come crowding on.”

    After some more recitative cut from this show, Mr. Streit was given an opportunity to show why he was picked to fill in for Mr. Kennedy, doing a rather excellent “From virtue springs each gen’rous deed.”

    After the fine chorus of Heathens “How strange their ends” which was done very nicely by the Trinity Choir (and not before Mr. Davies got a little shouty in “Ye ministers of justice, lead them hence” we listened to another piece that has a good case to make in being the most beautiful one of this oratorio, the incredible duet for Didymus and Theodora “Thither let our hearts aspire.” The very sad last scene came up, with all ending in the delicate, melancholic chorus “O love divine, thou source of fame.”

    At 11:45 PM, the audience seemed to be still energized enough to grant to the artists a well deserved, long standing ovation. What a great evening of sensational music! We hope that maestro Bicket will indeed be asked again and will bring to Chapel Hill his next Alcina with the great Joyce DiDonato.

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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      It's nice to see that our interviewee Sarah Connolly, one of my favorite mezzos, was given strong praise when this same show with a slightly different cast was taken to the Barbican in London - see below the Opera Today review. Stay tuned for her interview (I haven't had the time to transcribe it yet, having been very busy ever since):


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