07 October 2015

the glory of the Glory of Spring

Last Sunday night I was in Berkeley's First Congregational Church for the first performance in centuries of Alessandro Scarlatti's La Gloria di Primavera, written in 1716 to celebrate the birth of a male heir to Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. The boy (the little baby Archduke Leopold) died a few months later and the serenata was shelved. Scarlatti died nine years later, Charles VI died twenty-three years later, the Holy Roman Empire expired ninety years later, and the manuscript lay there through it all, waiting for Professor Benedikt Poensgen to rediscover it and Philharmonia Baroque to bring it back to life.

Little Leopold was born in spring, which was the inspiration (though that is probably not the right word for the adequate and overlong libretto) by Abbate Nicolo Giovo. The seasons gather to debate which of them deserves the most credit for helping in the production of the Hero-baby, because now that he is born war will give way to peace. (This part is not entirely hyperbole; there had been several wars related to the Hapsburg claims to various thrones, and the hope was that Leopold's birth would prevent another one. As it happened, his early death meant that another war of succession had to be fought to place his sister Maria Theresa on the throne, an historical fact that gave the libretto an occasional depth of poignant irony unearned by its intentions.) Anyway Jove shows up in the second half and eventually (spoiler alert!) gives the palm to Spring as the season of actual birth.

The piece itself is like one of those baroque ceilings that are officially about The Apotheosis of X or the Triumph of Something Good Over Something Not As Good; what really makes you spend hours straining your neck staring up is not the official program but the mad extravagance of ornament, the swirling lights and shades, the glowing draperies, the fruits and flowers, insects and birds crammed in just for the pleasure of their company, the heedless and generous magnificence of the whole thing. Scarlatti's music is like that, cloaking the libretto's sycophantic conceits in a sumptuous flow of varied invention. Most of the music is at a high level of liveliness – a trumpets-sounding sort of thing – and as such it certainly plays to the jaunty strengths of conductor Nicolas McGegan and his band.

The singers were also consistently strong. It would be difficult to single out a favorite from among Nicholas Phan's virile tenor, the mellifluous self-satisfaction of baritone Douglas Williams's Jove, the limpid countertenor of Clint van der Linde, or the glowing harmonies of mezzo-soprano Diana Moore and soprano Suzana Ograjenšek.

As you may have gathered, I was not a big fan of the libretto, which doesn't really rise above its praise-of-the-ruling-caste genre. For us it's little more than an excuse for the orchestra and singers to do their thing, from imitating the Danube's flow to praising peace. I'm all in favor of peace, and flowing rivers: so does the libretto actually matter in any significant way? There is one thing: it goes on too long. Scarlatti's inventiveness never lags, and neither did the performers' energies, but the audience's might have. The concert lasted nearly three hours (though that does include an absurdly long intermission), which is not unusual for a big vocal work from the baroque period but is maybe not what any of us were expecting (even PBO; the program book said the run-time was "about two hours" and I assume they would have had the sense to start earlier than 7:30 if they had known the length of the piece; of course there is no performance history for them to go by). When it got to be 10:00 several people just got up and left (there was no libretto in the program, so there was no way of knowing how much longer it would last). It's too bad, since there was so much pleasure to be had from the performance. But I'll admit – though I'm abashed at how bourgie and Philistine it makes me feel, and sound –  that my spirits sank a bit when I realized how little sleep I was going to get before the alarm clock went off for Monday morning. It's just another argument for more rational start times that better fit the way we have to live now. Aristocrats in Naples didn't have these problems.

There are still some performances left (7 October at Stanford, 9 October at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and 10 October back in First Congregational in Berkeley) so if you are able to get to one you will have a splendid time and hear something old yet new. (Tickets are available here.) Even better news is that PBO is recording the piece and will release it a few months from now on their house label. The weakness of the libretto and the unexpected length of the concert don't really matter when it comes to a recording; this is definitely one to be on the lookout for. I assume they'll have to patch together the different concerts, since  despite numerous reminders that a live recording was going on, there were a few eruptions of hacking coughs, and a brief period of unexpected laughter when the houselights suddenly dimmed and then went back up during the performance. I don't actually know why that was considered funny, but a lot of people laughed. McGegan shrugged insouciantly and kept on. I would have preferred having the houselights down the whole time, anyway. It looked intensely dramatic and concentrated attention. And we did not need to look at the words in our programs because they used supertitles. I assume that was to reduce page-turning and paper-rustling during the recording but it was a welcome innovation no matter what the reason.

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