Dallas — There’s a new player on the baroque music scene in Dallas. With the inaugural concerts by American Baroque Opera Company this week, North Texas now boasts a dedicated early music opera company. Thanks to founders Eric Smith and Miguel Cantu IV, we can hear the operatic repertoire of Handel, Purcell, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries performed on period instruments and with early-music-appropriate voices.
The ensemble’s debut performances, called Masquerade, are taking place in AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Hamon Hall, opening the season for ATTPAC’s Elevator Project. The program includes a baker’s dozen arias and begins with an overture, from Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade. Yes, Vivaldi wrote operas, and a lot of them. About 20 survive, although he asserted that he wrote nearly 100.
The production is semi-staged, the singers using props (sometimes human ones) and masks. The masks add a fun touch, and patrons are invited to wear their own or purchase one at the door for $10.
Baroque opera is certainly enjoying a resurgence these days, with major opera companies mounting productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Alcina. However, these productions are often hybrids, with musicians using less vibrato than usual on their modern instruments, singers trying to do the same, and the result frequently being less than satisfactory.
Hearing early music specialists perform these arias live, then, was a revelation. Vocalists included soprano Anna Fredericka Popova, who wowed with her huge, liquid voice in arias from Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade, Handel’s Rinaldo, and, especially, “Ah! mio cor!” from Handel’s Alcina, which prompted cries of “Brava!” and cheers. I’d like to see her sing unencumbered by a music folder, though—I suspect it would enhance both her connection with the audience and her acting.
Soprano Jendi Tarde is a delightful comic actor, most especially in “Stizzoso, mio stizzoso” from Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona. However, singing this aria in English, even for comedic effect, seemed odd for musicians invested in authentic performance practice. After all, the production uses supertitles. Tarde also sang a Purcell aria from Dioclesian as well an aria from Handel’s Alcina that showed off her perfectly serviceable Italian diction—no need for translations here. Tarde’s voice is sweet and unaffected, with moderate vibrato—a good fit for this repertoire.
Mezzo-soprano Laura Warriner Bray impressed with her commanding voice and stage presence. An aria from Handel’s Xerxes and the melancholy “When I am Laid in Earth” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as well as “Agitata da due venti,” from Vivaldi’s Griselda.
Countertenor Nicholas Garza provided another authentic note—the arias that he performed, such as “Sta nell’Ircana,” from Handel’s Alcina, which is in the mezzo soprano range, are usually given to women playing trouser roles in conventional productions. In Handel’s day, they would have been sung by castrati, who are, thankfully, in short supply these days. Still, these roles were written for men, so countertenors such as Garza are becoming more popular in authentic baroque productions. Garza’s voice is superb in lyrical arias such as the Handel and an aria from Nicola Porpora’s Polifemo, though he struggled with melismatic passages in an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo.
In this intimate space, the orchestra of strings and continuo sounded bright but resonant, with remarkably good pitch on the notoriously finicky baroque instruments. The only addition to the suitably sparse orchestra was a rousing natural horn cameo, provided by Nancy Piper, in “Sta nell’Ircana.”
American Baroque Opera is an exciting addition to the local early music scene. They’re musically on point, but know how to have fun, too. This is a group to watch, and to support.
The final performance is 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16.