Everything about Tuesday evening’s concert by The Theatre of Early Music at Carnegie Hall was intimate.

Daniel Taylor, © Marco Borggreve
Daniel Taylor,
© Marco Borggreve

Today, we associate the operas of Handel with music and drama on the grandest scale. However, the performance in Weill Recital Hall gave modern audiences a glimpse into how Handel’s audiences would have consumed this music in coffee houses, concert halls, and in the home.

The one-on-a-part ensemble may have left some in the audience yearning to hear a larger group of players to realize Handel’s sumptuous string parts. However, the balance between the players and singers was perfectly suited to the size of the sold-out Weill Recital Hall, and created a robust continuo – which contained more than half of the players!

Though the program did not provide biographical details of the instrumental players – two violins, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, and harpsichord – they constitute some of today’s leading interpreters of the repertoire. The concertmistress, Cynthia Roberts, for example, not only performs with the best ensembles worldwide, but also teaches throughout the United States, including for Juilliard’s new M.M. in historical performance.

Arias from three of Handel’s most popular operas in modern revival, Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo, and Rodelinda (which is currently still running at the Met, just up the street), were featured in the program.

But the true gem of the evening was the aria “Se il cor ti perde” from Tolomeo sung by Daniel Taylor (countertenor). The opera itself was little known even amongst the most experienced Handelians in the audience. For this piece, Taylor gave a charming introduction and explained some of his artistic choices. This helped add to the intimacy of the evening, and he also gave shout-outs to friends and family in the audience, as well as colleagues such as Judith Malafronte, who was in attendance as well.

In the aria, he mixed his falsetto and baritone wonderfully for dramatic effect, and literally let his hair down in order to match the affekt of the crazed aria. His cadenzas were bombastic, chilling, and downright ferocious. One could really hear and see the rage of the character Tolomeo, who in the aria threatens his sister Cleopatra.

While the rest of the program contained arias and duets that are familiar to the point of being hackneyed, Taylor and his colleague Deborah York (soprano) gave fresh interpretations to these old favorites. Taylor’s delivery of “Cara sposa” from Rinaldo was particularly wonderful, and his entrance on the B natural held for more than four full beats was exquisite. A similar effect is written into the aria “Dove sei” from Rodelinda, and Taylor let his audience relish in his gentle messa di voce, beginning softly and then slowly swelling both in volume and vibrato.

In all of his arias, Taylor showed remarkable restraint in his use of vocal embellishments and cadenzas. The result made his choices to alter the music in da capo repeats highly noticeable and effective.

Deborah York’s most stunning aria, perhaps, was Cleopatra’s “Tu la mia stella sei” from Giulio Cesare. Her da capo ornaments, more so than in her other arias, were subtly chosen and highlighted her vocal agility. The gorgeous and expansive “Se pietá”, another aria for Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare received thunderous applause from the audience. During the fermata at the first presentation of the A section, one audience member exclaimed “It’s a beautiful aria!”

The duet “Io t’abbraccio” which concluded the concert encapsulated the theme of the entire program: loss in love. Appropriately, Taylor dedicated the piece not only to his deceased colleague Richard Campbell, but also to the recently deceased mother of an audience member.

True to the ensemble's name, Theatre of Early Music, all of the music was presented in a theatrical manner, rather than the park-and-bark delivery found in many recitals. Taylor, for example, never stood in the center of the stage during introductory ritornelli. For all of his arias, he made a dramatic entrance from stage left. Often, he even began singing facing away from the audience, singing to the players.

The style of dramatic presentation also contributed to its authenticity. Can modern audiences truly expect that arias performed in concert during the 18th century were not delivered dramatically? What were distinctions between genres such as the cantata and opera? Were oratorios delivered in a more-or-less dramatic fashion? With the same singers and the same musicians performing all genres, it is difficult to imagine that Handel’s audiences would have experienced a park-and-bark performance in public concerts, coffee houses, and private homes.