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Performances

G. F. Handel
06 May 2008

The Collegiate Chorale: Jupiter in Argos

Over the years, one tried and true method of packing audiences in to the concerts of Robert Bass’s Collegiate Chorale has been to present concert opera with impressive soloists.

G. F. Handel: Jupiter in Argos

Callisto: Elizabeth Futral; Diana: Heidi Grant Murphy; Iside: Kristine Jepson; Jupiter: Rufus Müller; Osiris: Wayne Tigges; Lycaone: Valerian Ruminski. The Collegiate Chorale directed by Robert Bass. Avery Fisher Hall, performance of April 28.

 

I’ve delighted in their presentations of Weber’s Oberon (Lauren Flanigan as the Caliph’s daughter!), Dvorak’s Dmitry (Martina Arroyo as a Polish princess! — a line that brought down the house), Szymanowsky’s King Roger, and many of the Verdi works that give choral forces a workout. Handel might be a worthy choice for such a group — his dramatic oratorios are terrific music, terrific drama, largely unfamiliar to New York audiences, and give pride of place, not to say a spectacular starring role, to the chorus, though in my experience of Handel chorale, less is usually more, and a proficient choir of two dozen is more effective than a group of fifty or a hundred.

However, bypassing the superb dramatic oratorios heard far too infrequently (Saul, for instance, or Athaliah, or Susannah, or Belshazzar, or — when did anyone last perform Alexander Balas?), Bass chose this spring to give the American premiere of the recently unearthed Giove in Argos (Jupiter in Argos), a pasticcio — that is, a work cobbled together mostly from pre-existing music by contract to a company of musicians while Handel’s true creative attentions were elsewhere. For a group with the Collegiate Chorale’s credentials and Bass’s expertise — undoubtedly fine but with little experience in the once neglected, now tremendously popular area of baroque opera — it may not have been the wisest possible choice.

The choruses were pleasing, but they played a comparatively small part in the evening’s entertainment, while Bass made the drastic decision — defensible thirty years ago, but way out of line today — to snip nearly all the solo arias of their B sections or their da capo ornamented repeats. This may have pleased the unions, but far too often it left hearers unsatisfied by singers who were barely warming to their tasks of characterization and ornament when they were obliged to sit down. Our ears were left wobbling by holes that had been dug in the path and were never to be filled. It was tatterdemalion Handel, even allowing for the high quality of some singing and of many individual arias familiar from other works.

For the pasticcio plot, someone devised a properly pasticcio legend combining the Ovidian myths of two of Jupiter’s amours — Io (transformed into a cow, fled to Egypt, and identified by later Greeks with the cow-headed goddess Isis) and Callisto (transformed, with her son, into bears, and placed among the stars). Setting two myths at once allowed Jupiter (tenor Rufus Müller) to get himself caught by each lady wooing the other, with the usual sitcom shenanigans and a happy-ish end of his going home to his wife and leaving them both alone.

The delight of the evening was Kristine Jepson as Io/Isis; her cool, lovely, hall-filling mezzo was the reason I was glad to be at this concert and nowhere else in New York. She possesses both the crowd-thrilling agility of ornament for Handel’s fiery arias (jealous rage or cries of alarm), she can sing quietly of despair or yearning, the simple, pensive beauty of her perfect technique making time seem to stop. This is the quality all great Handel singers must possess — the ability to draw you within their hearts, to comprehend the emotions being expressed, and Jepson has it.

Elizabeth Futral was, as usual, the most elegantly dressed of the performers; she sang Callisto with her accustomed assurance, a pretty way with runs and ornaments, a light touch on the flowering vocal line. Heidi Grant Murphy’s voice always seems bland and ill-supported; her Diana lacked a goddess’s authority. Rufus Müller, as the hapless king of the gods, drew as much sympathy for his harassed facial expressions as for his facility with Handel’s tenor lines. Wayne Tigges sang a decent Osiris but Valerian Ruminski, whose rich bass rumble I have admired on bel canto occasions, seemed off his game or out of his proper repertory here.

John Yohalem

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