Divas duel delightfully in entertaining Music of the Baroque program

Tue Feb 25, 2020 at 3:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Sopranos Susanna Phillips and Jane Archibald performed music of Handel and Mozart with Jane Glover conducting Music of the Baroque Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Vocal works of Handel and Mozart are not exactly terra incognita for a Music of the Baroque program. But Monday night at the Harris Theater, Jane Glover led her ensemble, joined by sopranos Susanna Phillips and Jane Archibald, in “Rival Divas”— a clever program that served up an entertaining blend of musical rarities and lightly-worn scholarship with some terrific singing and theatrical panache.

The conceit was to chart some less-often-heard opera music through the history of the female singers who first performed them. Glover provided more extensive spoken program notes than usual for this program but communicated the information with such a deft touch and enthusiasm that they proved enjoyable in themselves.

In the case of the Handel first half of the evening, the vying singers sang arias that were performed by the celebrated London rivals Francesca Cuzzoni (Phillips) and Faustina Bordoni (Archibald).  The savvy, PR-minded Handel saw a way of capitalizing on the competition by writing two operas with roles for both, Alessandro and Tolomeo.

Phillips and Archibald paired in an accompanied recitative from Alessandro and the pastoral duet “Placa l’alma,” here graciously sung and blended. 

Also from Alessandro, Phillips floated a lovely rendering of Lisaura’s “Quanto dolce amor saria,” her rich tone and expressive warmth reflecting what were said to be the lauded qualities of Cuzzoni. Likewise Bordoni’s more brilliant vocal style was featured in Rossane’s “Brilla nell’alma,” the flashy coloratura thrown off admirably by Archibald, albeit with some slightly choppy moments.

In her other showy arias “L’aquila alteria” from Riccardo Primo and  “Ti pentirai crudel” from Tolomeo, Archibald capably met the daunting challenges, assaying the runs and roulades with dexterity and delivering the requisite high notes. Yet with fitfully uneven projection and lower notes sometimes swallowed up, the performances lacked that last dollop of fizz and excitement for this bravura music to make its full dazzling impact.

In this Handel section of the battle of the soprano bands, it was the less showy pieces that came off most impressively as sung by Susanna Phillips. 

The American soprano offered a flexible, lightly inflected rendering of  “Torni omai la pace” from Tolomeo. Phillips delivered the finest moment of the night with Antigona’s “Da tanti affanni oppressa” from Admeto. Sung with refulgent tone and great depth of feeling suffused with sadness, this was undeniably great singing and inspired vocal artistry.

The second half was devoted to Mozart. The time Phillips took on the music written for Caterina Cavalieri, the pupil (and likely mistress) of Mozart’s rival Salieri; Archibald was Aloysia Weber, who rejected Mozart’s romantic attentions, only to become his sister-in-law when the composer married her sister, Constanze. Glover again set the historic scene with illuminating commentary, set in concise, witty brushstrokes. (Much of this background is explored by the conductor in her excellent book, Mozart’s Women.)

The main work was a rare performance of Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario). Commissioned by royal request, Mozart quickly dished off this brief comic singspiel while in the middle of completing Le nozze di Figaro. The scenario may be slender—with two bickering star sopranos and the harried title presenter trying to keep the backstage peace—but the music is prime Mozart. The acres of comic dialogue were aptly jettisoned Monday night, but the performance was musically complete, giving us all four of the singspiel numbers.

The Impresario finally gave the audience the steel-cage vocal match the program’s title promised, with each of the sopranos—evenly matched at nearly six-feet in height—taking on the roles of formidable opera-house rivals, Mademoiselle Silberklang and Madame Herz. (Glover noted that the parts were taken good-naturedly at the premiere by Cavalieri and Weber, who were clearly friendly colleagues more than rivals).

The two sopranos sang their single solo arias gratefully, with an extra bit of diva-esque hammyness, while the other tried to upstage her. Phillips, in particular, was hilarious—sourly staring straight ahead, drinking her water, impatiently tossing her hair and rolling her eyes, the epitome of the petulant, self-centered diva.

The amusing hijinks continued in the ensuing theatrical trio. Tenor Klaus Georg lent an apt world-weary manner as the put-upon title impresario, Monsieur Vogelsang, who tries to maintain a professional decorum. The sopranos finally put aside the jealousy and daggers in the upbeat finale, which offers some eternally useful advice: “Artists must naturally strive to be worthy of top billing. But claiming they are the best, [and] better than all others, makes even the biggest artist small.”

The singspiel was preceded by other Mozart selections. Glover led a thrusting, dramatic account of the Overture to Don Giovanni. And from the same opera, Phillips offered a characterful rendering of Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradi,” desolate in the slow section and brimming with verve in the allegro.

Archibald delivered her finest performance of the night with the concert aria, Vorrei spiegravi, o Dio–originally an insert number Mozart wrote for a Pasquale Anfossi opera Aloysia Weber was appearing in. This extraordinary aria blends a remarkable depth of expression—even for Mozart—with the stratospheric high notes Weber was renown for.  Archibald elegantly explored the emotional depths of the aria, handled the sustained notes with aplomb, scaled the top high E’s and brought impassioned vivacity to the final section. Oboist Jennet Ingle contributed a dulcet, sensitive obbligato solo.

Patrick Dupré Quigley conducts Music of the Baroque in works of Bach, Purcell, Rameau and Rebel, 3 p.m. April 5 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and 7:30 p.m. April 6 at the Harris Theater. baroque.org; 312-551-1414

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