Sunday was one of those unpleasantly hot days that smear through the occasional week here in the Bay Area. Fortunately it had cooled down by the time I arrived at First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the last concert in the first series of Philharmonia Baroque's new, thirty-third, season. Each concert this year concentrates on a particular city; last night it was Naples, with an emphasis on Pergolesi, though Handel also made an appearance, thanks to his stay in that musically influential city, as did Francesco Durante, Pergolesi's teacher. The centerpiece was in the second half, Pergolesi's famous Stabat Mater. Nicholas McGegan conducted.
The first half was framed by orchestral pieces, opening with the sinfonia from Pergolesi's opera L'Olimpiade, and closing with Durante's Concerto for Strings No. 2 in G minor. There were not actually all that many players up on the stage, but they produce an opulent, full sound. I enjoyed the coruscating elegancies of the baroque. There was a pause after the first piece, when a couple of latecomers were seated. The concert started at 7:30, but really would have been better off starting at 7:00, for the benefit of those of us who have not yet reached the bliss of retirement. Handel vocal selections came as the creamy filling between the orchestral numbers.
David Daniels and Carolyn Sampson were the soloists. Daniels is of course well known, the standard bearer and the standard for a generation of countertenors. He was in rich voice last night. But like the flighty lively crowds of Naples pleasure-seekers that McGegan invoked (at least in my mind) at the start of the concert, I was swept up by what was new to me, so with no disrespect intended to Daniels I'm going to go on about Sampson. If I've heard her before, it's been on recordings where I didn't really pay attention to the list of singers (which is not unusual for me; sorry, I'm generally more about composer and work). She was sensational, with a beautiful limpid soprano. She's an attractive blonde with a glam presence; she came out in a long dark red gown with black trim and a sparkling necklace. The dress was strapless and my first thought was, She looks great but I hope she puts a shawl on before the Stabat Mater, so I guess the Carmelite Sisters of Charity who taught in my grammar school did their work well. (To put you out of your suspense right now, she came out for the second half with a black bolero jacket over her dress, looking still stylish but also appropriate – well done!)
Daniels and Sampson sang two Handel duets, with a solo apiece in between. First was Io t'abbraccio from Rodelinda, followed by Daniels in Dove sei from the same opera; then Sampson sang Da tempeste from Giulio Cesare, followed by Caro/Bella from the same opera. It was all very satisfying but Sampson's solo turn was for me the highlight; she not only sang beautifully but she caught the character of Cleopatra perfectly; this was a woman for whom flirting was like breathing, with a pleasing teasing tone. The lively extravagance of her ornamentation in the repeats was quite seductive.
Obviously a different tone was called for after the intermission, with the lyrical passion of the Stabat Mater, the antique prayer meditating upon Mary's suffering at the foot of the cross. There was more program rustling for this part, which was unfortunate though expected. Oddly the program had the first stanza of the poem on the bottom of the same page that had the aria texts, though there was plenty of room to put the entire text with translation of the Stabat Mater on the next two pages, which would have reduced the rustling. Even better would be to use supertitles. The performance flowed swiftly, with fluid intensity. We were nearing the end ("Fac ut portem Christi mortem, / passionis fac me sortem / et plagas recolere" : "Grant that I may bear the death of Christ, / grant me the fate of His passion / and the remembrance of His wounds") when a fairly powerful earthquake jolted the building. A momentary look of panic spread across some faces but the performers carried on without a pause. On the whole, the evening was a sumptuous immersion in the warmth of the Italian baroque. The next city, to be explored 15 - 19 November, is an unusual and interesting choice for a baroque ensemble: St Petersburg. Check it out here, especially if you're one of those looking for new adventures in old music.