Portland Baroque Orchestra review: Handel in good hands

Dramatic sensibility and musical virtuosity make Handel’s music soar.


Seeing Handel arias on a program fills me with dread.

Unlike Bach or Purcell, whose music has enough intrinsic novelty to carry even a really bad actor, Handel offers no hiding places. His music was deliberately composed with plenty of elbow room for dramatic interpretation and embellishment. It’s like one of those flat gray rocks you pick up on the beach because its beauty just staggers you at the time, but then you find it in your pocket when you get home and wonder why you kept it. The challenge for any artist attacking a program of Handel is to make the audience want to pick up that rock and keep it forever.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewI’d be surprised if anyone at First Baptist Church Saturday night didn’t leave with their pockets full.

With a flair for drama and a penchant for light, crisp readings and dizzyingly fast tempi, guest director Alexander Weimann led Portland Baroque Orchestra in an inspired program of arias and duets from Handel’s operas and oratorios, threaded together with movements from the same composer’s Op. 6 concerti grossi to create a single transporting dramatic piece.

Weimann, who leads Vancouver BC’s Pacific Baroque Orchestra, and PBO were joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe, a key player in Weimann’s recent Juno Award-nominated recording of Handel’s 1733 opera,Orlando, and mezzo soprano Hannah Penn, one of the most thoughtful and talented performers to emerge from Portland Opera’s Studio Artist program.

Amanda Forsythe starred with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Photo: Mark Powell.

Amanda Forsythe starred with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Photo: Mark Powell.

Forsythe was unquestionably the star of the evening. Her tone was like toasted caramel and her expressiveness and vocal control were astounding. Her embellishments sounded spontaneous and effortless, pin-point clear and fiendishly twisty but never gratuitous; every display of vocal fireworks had an expressive purpose. I’ve heard coloratura sopranos with expressive or technical abilities equal to Forsythe’s, but almost none so rich in both.

My favorite moment by far was Forsythe’s severely simple and moving “Tu del ciel ministro eletto” from the oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth. This is the type of Handel number that really gives you the measure of a performer. I don’t think anyone in the house breathed until the last note of this aria died out. It was vocally and dramatically divine.

Penn’s darker vocal color contrasted beautifully with Forsythe’s in their duets, while her similar vibrato, clarity and brilliance created a thrilling match. Their tight tuning and close coordination on lightning-fast runs was exciting, but I was happiest when both voices expanded in a legato (smoothly flowing) line, as in the gorgeous encore selection, ‘‘Pur ti Miro” from Claudio Monteverdi’s morally questionable 1642 masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppea.

The orchestra, directed by Weimann from the harpsichord, was in great form, and offered up some blazing solos, notably bassoonist Nate Helgeson’s turn in ‘Venti, turbini’ from the opera Rinaldo and concertmaster Carla Moore’s increasingly virtuosic violin in concerto grosso Opus 6, no 11 in conversation with equally nimble-fingered turns by principal cellist Joanna Blendulf.

Weimann displayed a clever (and historically authentic) hand with improvisation to smooth the transitions between pieces. His strange and pensive little harpsichord improvisation connecting concerto grosso No. 1 with Penn’s aria from Theodora was one of my favorite moments. Like Forsythe’s, Weimann’s richly varied musical choices served the dramatic needs of each piece, his energetic direction brimming with novel ideas.

I wasn’t surprised to find theatre among Weimann’s long and varied list of college studies (which also included jazz piano and medieval Latin). PBO put its Handel in the right hands, and the result was a fresh yet historically faithful approach that balanced technical prowess with stunning emotional authenticity. Now where do I get the CD?

Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director of Opera Theater Oregon.

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This review made possible by our friends at Artslandia.

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