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She Came to Conquer

March 18, 2008

Cleopatra, in the person of Isabel Bayrakdarian, stormed into the First Congregational Church of Berkeley Saturday night, in the company of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Opera found its way to Germany in the early 18th century, and Cleopatra was a favorite character, sharing the stage with one or the other of her famous lovers, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
A grand overture from Carl Heinrich Graun's Cleopatra e Cesare opened the concert. Two arias followed: "Tra le procelle assorto" (In the midst of the tempest), from Graun's opera, and "Morte col fiero aspetto" (The ferocious face of death), from Johann Adolf Hasse's Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra. The two were similar in style, swooping up and down in fast, stormy runs. Bayrakdarian gave passionate voice to both, creating a terrific tempest, first in the sea and then in the heart of Cleopatra. Music Director Nicholas McGegan was having a whale of a time, and the audience roared.

It is always gratifying to encounter a singer who explores a variety of repertoires and styles and resists being narrowly typed. Bayrakdarian is such a singer. It is much to McGegan's credit that he is equally adventurous in working with singers who do not fit an "early music" stereotype. While the Philharmonia players toss off virtuoso passages with pinpoint accuracy, flawless intonation, shapely phrasing, and seeming ease, for Bayrakdarian the same kinds of passages involve more evident labor, unnecessary manipulations of face and body, and some degree of hit-or-miss tuning.

But it doesn't matter much, because on both sides there is such intense musicality and powerful dramatic sense. Plus, both sides have excellent instruments at their disposal.

For her first two arias, Bayrakdarian was clad in a dress that made her a kind of mermaid in the foaming sea. After intermission and a costume change (in honor of Caesar), she returned to sing the splendid aria "Piangero la sorte mia" (I shall lament my fate) from Handel's Giulio Cesare. Queen Cleopatra, early in the opera, has been imprisoned by the usurper Ptolemy, and she believes that Caesar has been killed. She expects to die, but also to return as a ghost to torment the tyrant.

Bayrakdarian's ravishing singing of the lament combined strong emotion with great beauty of sound. Her singing of the B section looked and sounded more like "look how fast I can sing and throw myself about" than "I will come back from beyond the grave to destroy him." Yet her return to the lament restored the moving expression of Cleopatra's despair.
Expressive Flute Playing
On the instrumental side, flutist Janet See played a concerto by Johann Joachim Quantz (No. 161, in G major, QV 5:174). The ensemble was exemplary, as if soloist, conductor, and strings were all breathing together. The Allegro and Presto movements were played with panache, and between them came a gem of a slow movement, in minor mode, arioso e mesto (songlike and sad). See drew beautifully expressive sound from her traverso, colored by certain tones hauntingly off the tempered modern scale. Sound and phrasing were so lovely that applause broke out at the end of the movement — a rarity in a Philharmonia audience, and richly deserved.

Another instrumental piece was a concerto by Johann David Heinichen, a romp featuring two natural horns straight up, played by R.J. Kelley and Paul Avril. A nicely scored Adagio brought Janet See back, backed by plucked treble strings, and with the basses joining in at the end.

The best vocal piece made an affecting end to the program: "The Death of Cleopatra" from Johann Mattheson's opera Cleopatra. Now dressed for Mark Antony, Bayrakdarian was singing in German rather than in the Italian favored by other German composers of that time. Either she has more feeling for German, or Mattheson had a great gift for setting his native language. Each section of this extended piece had its own quality, superbly expressed by Bayrakdarian, in each word, each phrase, each turn of the music.

For the first section, "Mein Leben ist hin" (My life is over), Elizabeth Blumenstock played a gorgeous obbligato, enhanced on the return of the A section by numerous melodious additions of her own. At the magnificent end, the orchestra, suddenly pianissimo, became a basket of wriggling snakes. Cleopatra placed asps on her breast and limbs, told the asps to "bite, bite" — and died.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.