Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the first-century poetic collection of stories about gods and humans swept up in a world of constant transformation, inspired composers throughout the Renaissance and Baroque era. American Bach Soloists’ final program of the season featured brilliant performances of two Ovid-based musical dramas, Handel’s Apollo and Daphne and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pygmalion. Among the many pleasures of the program was experiencing the contrast between two worlds of late Baroque music: the virtuosic arias of Italian opera (the young Handel was working in Rome) and the quick-moving action of French opera-ballet.
In Rome, Handel would certainly have seen Bernini’s stunningly sexy sculpture capturing in marble the moment when Apollo, lustfully chasing Daphne, finds her turning into a tree. It seems likely that the young German composer wanted to channel Bernini’s daring — and perhaps some of his fame. Working from a libretto by one of the most distinguished of Roman patrons, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, Handel created a musical tale full of sparkling drama.
Though semi-operatic in nature, Handel’s cantata was never intended to be fully staged; American Bach presented it with the two principals singing from music stands at the front of the stage, with the orchestra behind them. I heard the performance on Saturday evening at Berkeley’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where the spacious stage fitted the action well.
At the center is the confrontation between the proud god Apollo and the resistant Daphne, a devotee of the virgin goddess Diana. Handel’s Apollo is a masterful character part — full of divine self-importance, rapaciously sexed-up, and only at the end sobered by Daphne’s transformation into the laurel tree that he then adopts as his reward for poets and heroes. As Apollo, baritone Hadleigh Adams, a last-minute replacement for the ailing Mischa Bouvier, drove the action with spirited gestures of pride, passion, and eventual repentance and a voice that was powerful, nimble, and warmhearted.
Daphne’s role is much the opposite of Apollo’s, beginning serenely — before Apollo starts to harass her — and quickly amping up into energetic and articulate assertions of her right to live free from the god’s advances. Soprano Mary Wilson caught perfectly the combination of anger, pride, and sorrow in Daphne’s varied arias and in the protagonists’ dramatic duets.
The orchestra, as usual with Handel, is almost a protagonist of its own. Under longtime Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas’s elegant leadership, the American Bach Soloists played with all the brio that Handel’s expressive orchestration deserves. Of particular note were solos by violinist Andrew Fouts and flutist Bethanne Walker, as well as fine ensemble work by the double reeds — oboists Stephen Hammer and Stephen Bard and bassoonist Nathan Helgeson.
Rameau’s Pygmalion tells of the sculptor who falls in love with his statue, which — through Love’s miraculous intervention — comes to life and returns Pygmalion’s affections (most of us know the story through My Fair Lady). Rameau’s highly colorful music is rich with harmonies that were radical for his time. Voices and instruments work in tight collaboration as this warmhearted comedy moves through desire toward mutual fulfillment, almost without interruption.
The principal role is Pygmalion, sung here by tenor Matthew Hill with eager and forceful passion for his marble creation and delighted wonder at her transformation into a living woman. He was particularly successful in his final, startlingly Italianate aria, filled with vocal fireworks.
Wilson returned as Amour, gracefully bringing the statue to life with some lovely mystical music from the orchestra. The statue was charmingly animated by soprano Amy Broadbent, who also supplied comic evocations of the statue’s Frankenstein dilemma — the difficulty any newly humanized creature faces in learning to walk, curtsey, and dance.
The one hiccup in this smooth course of true love is that another (real) woman is in love with Pygmalion. Her brief but powerful scene upbraiding her beloved was sung by soprano Morgan Balfour, whose crystal-clear tone conveyed a broad palette of emotional and vocal colors.
Rameau’s piece is formally called an “acte de ballet” — that is, operatic action coupled with dance. In this concert performance, most of the physical action that would have graced the French court in Rameau’s time had to be left out — though the orchestra’s spirited playing of a splendid anthology of French dance tunes went a long way to filling the gap.
The overall effect of the evening was humane in the best sense — talented musicians generously sharing music they obviously love. Ovid, though famously critical of his Roman contemporaries, would surely have loved hearing and seeing his tales reborn so well, so many centuries later.