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Bayrakdarian with Tafelmusik: Star, orchestra perform as two solitudes

By Tamara Bernstein / January 13, 2004

Cleopatra: Tafelmusik with Isabel Bayrakdarian
Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto
by Tamara Bernstein

Isabel Bayrakdarian
made a long-overdue debut with Tafelmusik this weekend, in concerts presenting the young, Toronto-based soprano as four "Cleopatras" – that is, in arias from operas about the famous queen by four 18th-century composers.

Isabel Bayrakdarian
Photo: Filipe Estrela
Although Bayrakdarian is launched on a major international career in mainstream opera, in many ways she is a natural for period performance, too. Her voice is sensual yet pure; full-bodied yet agile; not over laden with vibrato. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at Saturday’s concert making comparisons – favourable ones -- with the superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. The two singers actually look somewhat similar; they share a fiery stage temperament and a dazzling vocal agility. Both clearly adore connecting with an audience.

I can easily imagine the two singers sharing a concert stage – but Bayrakdarian will have to push her interpretations further. On Saturday, we needed more colourful delivery of the Italian texts to her arias, by Hasse and Handel -- a more intense imaginative identification with the texts, as well as the musicality of the words themselves.

And while Bayrakdarian’s voice was ravishing, nothing actually touched me – not even the famously poignant Piangero from Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

Though Hasse’s operas are rarely heard today, at the height of his career he was the world’s foremost composer of opera seria (a fact that should have been in the program notes, which were excellent on Cleopatra but skimpy on the music.)

The arias from Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, were first-rate pieces, but sounded very new to both singer and orchestra. In Quel candido armellino, the sensual music belies the text’s proud proclamation of chastity-or-death. The most arresting feature of the song is the singer’s sequences of falling scales that repeat at ever higher starting pitches – a contradiction of rising and falling that suggests that part of Cleopatra is very attracted to whomever she is rebuffing. Yet the performers brought out none of this rich ambiguity.

Although the ensemble between orchestra and singer was precise, musically the two remained weirdly disconnected. Bayrakdarian seemed a star expecting to be accompanied, rather than a chamber music partner. Tafel, in turn, failed to catch many of the singer’s changes of colour or dynamics; neither party, in short, seemed comfortable with the other.

The dry air in churches during such cold weather is hell on period instruments. So I was very impressed by Tafelmusik’s high technical standard – especially as the cold drafts on Saturday night created constant swings in humidity. Yet only Christopher Verrette, in a Vivaldi Concerto for two violins, had serious struggles with intonation.

I also enjoyed the operatic expectation that the orchestra brought to the Overture of a Telemann Suite in A Minor that opened the program

But overall, Tafel’s playing was characterized by aggression and correctness rather than imagination, spontaneity and joy. It’s not that the players should paste idiotic grins on their faces. But over the years, music director Jeanne Lamon appears to have foresworn sensuality, pleasure and emotional risk-taking in her playing and leading, with sad consequences for the group.

The majority of Saturday’s audience clearly did not share this view, leaping to their feet and clapping rhythmically. But to me the whole concert seemed like a rehearsal for the recording for CBC records that will follow these concerts. The fillers – in particular the generic Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins – seemed random choices, and were soon forgotten.

I apologize, meanwhile, for misleading readers in Thursday’s weekend agenda, when I implied that Bayrakdarian would sing excerpts from four different operas about Cleopatra on each concert. I had received misleading information from the CBC. It turns out that Bayrakdarian is rotating her composers -- Handel, Hasse, Graun and Mattheson -- over four concerts. The remaining two are Jan. 15 and 16.

(First published in the National Post on Jan. 12; copyright Tamara Bernstein; used with permission.)

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