Haymarket Opera resurrects an intriguing Grimani oratorio

Sat Mar 23, 2024 at 12:52 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Christian Pursell and Erica Schuller were soloists in Haymarket Opera’s presentation of La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista Friday night at DePaul University. Photo: Elliot Mandel

On Friday night DePaul University’s Gannon Concert Hall was filled with music not heard in over 300 years. 

Haymarket Opera Company revived Maria Margherita Grimani’s oratorio La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista (“The Beheading of John the Baptist”) in grand style after centuries of obscurity, fielding a stellar lineup of vocal soloists supported by an elegant baroque band.

Over two hours the 1715 score recounts in a straightforward manner the well-known biblical story: King Herod has divorced his first wife to marry Herodias (his brother’s ex); John the Baptist condemns the union, Herodias calls for vengeance, her daughter Salome beguiles Herod with a dance at his birthday celebrations, and when Herod rewards Salome with anything she desires, she requests John’s severed head and Herod obliges.

As Vanessa Tonelli spelled out in an extended program note, Grimani was one of several notable female composers to write oratorios in the early 18th century. La decollazione was written for the Hapsburg court, specifically emperor Charles VI, and Tonelli suggests initial audiences would have appreciated the resonances between Herod’s court and the imperial Austrian one.

Grimani’s score itself is admirably through-composed, moving naturally from one number to the next, but the action does drag as it proceeds. We do not really need three da capo arias wishing Herod joy on his birthday to get the point, and at such times it felt like dramatic tension was entirely lost. While Grimani’s comely Baroque idiom can start to feel unvaried over the course of an evening, there are inspired moments—particularly Salome’s dance aria austerely accompanied by only two violins. Some judicious cuts could easily make Grimani’s oratorio a more convincingly dramatic work.

Bass-baritone Christian Pursell, making his Haymarket debut, sang the role of Herod with a rich, rotund timbre, capturing the king of Judea’s pompous self-satisfaction at his birthday honors. At times Pursell’s expression felt somewhat stiff, and one wasn’t entirely convinced he was all that concerned about his wife’s grievances in their extended opening duet (the audience laughed at the singer’s awkward reception of Salome’s request for the head, though there was little to cavil over with his vocalism).

Haymarket mainstay Erica Schuller was inspired as Herodias, deploying a generous soprano to capture her aggrieved character’s shifting moods.Her outraged suffering at John’s accusations was entirely convincing, and her ecstasy at the prospect of her defamer’s murder struck the right sadistic note, all put across with a lush, fluent tone.

“Imperious” and “sequined” are words seldom found in the same sentence, but they capture alto Fleur Barron’s dynamic pants portrayal of John the Baptist. The Singaporean-British vocalist sang with nuance and authority that projected the Baptist’s deep spiritual convictions. The oratorio ends not with blood and gore, but with John accepting his martyrdom and trusting it will bring him closer to God. Barron provided an evening highlight in her moving rendition of this closing aria.

Tenor Eric Ferring, a Ryan Opera Center alum, served as Herod’s confidant, who is really more of a functionary in Grimani’s treatment. Ferring’s powerful tenor captured the bureaucrat’s joy at carrying out and imposing orders, and was at his finest in a surging aria sycophantically singing Salome’s praises.

Salome herself appears only in the oratorio’s second part, and was expertly rendered by soprano Kristin Knutson Berka. Her vocal timbre is similar to Schuller’s, and one could believe the family resemblance. Berka eagerly joined the other characters’ well wishes for Herod’s celebration, alluringly offering him her dance and accepting his reward for it. Oboist Anne Bach provided sinuous obbligati to Berka’s arias on a keening period instrument that heightened the sense of seduction.

Artistic director Craig Trompeter led the nine-member Haymarket Opera Orchestra from the cello, establishing a genuine chamber music atmosphere appropriate to the style and scope of Grimani’s music. First violin Jeri-Lou Zike was an essential partner for Trompeter and made eloquent solo contributions.

Haymarket Opera Company presents Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione 7:30 p.m. June 14 at Gannon Concert Hall. haymarketopera.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Haymarket Opera resurrects an intriguing Grimani oratorio”

  1. Posted Mar 25, 2024 at 5:55 pm by Susie Imrem

    It was a wonderful evening of the most glorious music!!! I can’t wait to see and hear La Resurrezione onJune 14th!!!

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