Twelfth Night and soloists bring youthful spark and a rom-com heart to Handel’s “Aminta e Fillide”

Mon Jan 16, 2023 at 12:34 pm
By David Wright
Rachell Ellen Wong and David Belkovski led Twelfth Night and soloists in a Music Before 1800 presentation of Handel’s “Aminta e Fillide” on Sunday at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Twelfth Night

Paradoxically, the vogue for the oldest music has always skewed young. You learn about Ockeghem and Schütz and Josquin in college, and suddenly mom and dad can have their symphony subscription and their Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Six hundred years ago is where it’s at.

And you can — maybe should— perform a Handel cantata not with a stage-filling orchestra but with just one player to a part, performing on silvery-sounding historic-replica instruments. When the musicologist and conductor Joshua Rifkin first performed Baroque masterworks on that scale forty years ago, smelling salts were in order. But by the 2000s, the Juilliard School — that keeper of the symphonic flame — had added a historical performance department, and the revolution had arrived.

It was a handful of recent Juilliard graduates called Twelfth Night who brought that one-to-a-part cantata to Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights on Sunday afternoon, as the venerable Music Before 1800 early-music series presented the ensemble in Handel’s Aminta e Fillide, as charming and affecting a piece of Baroque romantic comedy as one could imagine.

No, the nymph and shepherd of Handel’s Arcadian drama don’t live in a city, and they don‘t have jobs. (Well, the shepherd does, but it never comes up.) But all the other rom-com elements are there: He’s smitten. She’s been hurt before and wants none of it. He presses his case. Slowly, slowly she changes her mind. He loses his mind with happiness. Ecstatic final duet.

Is that enough story to hang ten arias and two duets on? It is if you’re G.F. Handel, that matchless prober of human emotions; and if you have a savvy sextet of young musicians to realize your ever-changing moods and musical textures; and, of course, if there’s a pair of singer-actors who can project both the poetic nuances and the vocal pyrotechnics you’ve written for them.

Sunday’s performance was blessed with all of the above in Twelfth Night, a self-described “ensemble of historical performance specialists” led by violinist Rachell Ellen Wong and harpsichordist David Belkovski, with Carmen Lavada Johnson-Pájaro on violin, Andrew Gonzalez on viola, Coleman Itzkoff on cello, Joshua Stauffer on theorbo, soprano Jessica Niles as the shepherd Aminta and mezzo-soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas as the nymph Fillide.

The appetizer for this Baroque feast was the Sinfonia from Vivaldi’s opera Il Giustino, a brief instrumental number consisting of a brilliant, biting Allegro, a swoony Andante duet for violin, viola and continuo, and a dancing finale only a few bars long. 

The group’s zesty, impeccable playing set the stage for a drama that started in the middle of the action: Aminta’s pursuit of Fillide over hill and dale (a swirling, bounding Overture) ending with the shepherd’s exclamation “Arresta, arresta il passo, ninfa!” (Stop running, nymph!). 

Aminta pleaded his case with gentle fioratura in the aria “Fermati, non fuggir,” only to be deflected by Fillide’s standoffish “Fiamma bella” — the latter sung, however, to a seductive three-to-a-bar accompaniment Johann Strauss would have been proud of. Aminta’s more assertive “Forse ch’un giorno” displayed soprano Niles’s clear, centered voice and mastery of Handelian one-syllable melisma to brilliant effect. But the mellower-toned Puskarz Thomas had a few melismas up her sleeve too, dancing away in a humorous echo duet with Wong’s violin, “Fu scherzo, fu gioco.”

Every rom-com has its low point, when all looks lost for the lovers, and Handel marked it here with a spectacular conflict duet, “Ascolta!…O Dei, che voi?” with Puskarz Thomas batting away Niles’s pleas in a flurry of echos, canons, roulades and ringing thirds and sixths. If ever a moment called for applause, this was it, but concert etiquette overcame opera etiquette, and silence reigned.

The cushiony, languid siciliano with which Twelfth Night accompanied Aminta’s despairing “Se vago rio” was a rebuke to anyone who says period-instrument groups have a limited tonal palette. Fillide was equally pitiable confiding to Wong’s sympathetic violin in “Sento ch’il Dio bambin,” that her resistance was futile, as Cupid had already wounded her. Both arias were models of sostenuto, long-lined singing.

Aminta’s response to this news was his most ornate aria yet, “A dispetto di sorte crudele,” vowing fidelity to Fillide in a rush of scales and ringing high notes. The latter sounded not so sure yet, marching to her fate in a minor key with “È un foco quel d’amore”; oddly, the concert’s staging had her singing this ambivalent aria directly to Aminta. 

No matter — nymph and shepherd finally affirmed their love in a ringing duo-recitative, followed by Aminta’s aria “Chi ben ama non paventi,” choppy and assertive in the outer sections, legato and florid in the middle. Happy at last, Fillide addressed her love aria “Non si può dar un cor” from the stage to Aminta, sitting in the church’s front pew.

Then the two singers rejoined in a triumphant closing duet, “Per abbater il rigore,” as complex and brilliant as the earlier duet, but with a more affirmative (though not very romantic) message: “To break through/a cold, pitiless heart,/bring constancy and fidelity/as your mighty shield.”

Not exactly a Hallmark sentiment, but the audience stood and cheered anyway, because such sensitivity and virtuosity in playing and singing doesn’t come along every day. As an encore, the ensemble offered a more mellifluous vocal duet, “Per le porte del tormento” from Handel’s Sosarme.

Music Before 1800 presents Les Délices, Debra Nagy, leader and oboist, with flutist Emi Ferguson, in music by Bologne, Boccherini, Bochsa and Sydney Guillaume, 4 p.m. Feb. 5 at Corpus Christi Church.

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