Handel, master of opera
Castrato singing, by all accounts, was among the splendors of Western music. The practice of castrating orphan boys to make them sopranos with extraordinary lung power, died out in the 19th century, happily. But the problem of casting in Baroque operas was one of several reasons those works stayed on the shelf for over a century.
One solution is the countertenor, in which fully equipped gentlemen simply train to sing in very high ranges to cover the music that Handel and others wrote for castrati. Countertenor Daniel Taylor, who sang from Handel operas Saturday on an Early Music Now program, is the best I’ve ever heard. His voice is big, beautiful, rich and agile. He guides it with unerring feel for the sentiments of the words and the direction of the phrase. He ornaments brilliantly and with a historian’s sense of style.
Taylor is artistic director of the Theatre of Early Music, a fluid group that on this occasion comprised soprano Deborah York, violinists Cynthia Roberts and Edwin Huizinga, violist David Miller, cellist Amanda Keesmaat, harpsichordist Eric Milnes, and David Jacques, who filled in the continuo on Baroque guitar.
They sang and played selections from Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda, operas Handel composed and staged with his company in the 1720s in London, when Italian-language opera was all the rage there. These arias and duets are extravagantly emotional in that one-feeling-at-a-time way of the Baroque, with each piece or section devoted to the joy, ache or rage of love. Phrases expand, sigh or drive as the sentiment demands. The singers and players understood and fully realized them.
This music is also extravagantly virtuosic for the singers. Both York and Taylor negotiated fleet scales and arpeggios with ease and applied the most astonishing ornaments when Handel instructs them to repeat a section, most often as a da capo. When York showed her stuff on the da capo repeat of Bel piacere (from Rinaldo), Roberts played the melody straight on her violin. The illuminating contrast between the two version showed just how far York went, which was surely in line with period practice.
This concert, held on the exact date that Early Music Now was founded 25 years ago, took place in the Schwan Concert Hall at Wisconsin Lutheran College. A near-capacity crowd applauded the Theatre of Early Music with gusto.