AMANDA FORSYTHE ENCHANTS AND BEGUILES AT THE EARLY MUSIC OPENER
Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Pacific Baroque Orchestra/ Alexander Weimann: Music of Handel and his Contemporaries, Christ Church Cathedral, September 16, 2016.
If there is one young Baroque soprano that has taken America by storm in recent years, it is Amanda Forsythe. Technically, she is an absolute wonder, being able to bring striking precision, agility and dynamic shading to her articulation, and her coloratura runs and trills in particular. Very clean across the full vocal range and scintillating at the top, she also produces singing of real strength and character, always managing to secure an engaging, if not entrancing, emotional resonance. Forsythe’s last appearance here was two years ago as Beauty in Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo, where she impressed by the boldness of her virtuoso cut-and-thrust, and the sharpness and weight of her emotional contours (review).
This concert was more of a gala celebration of her recent accomplishments, consisting of selected arias of Handel and his contemporaries interspersed between orchestral pieces. It follows on from her latest recording ‘The Power of Love’ for Avie, released at the end of last year. The cinematic character of this occasion could be gleaned from the fact that the singer wore a blue dress for the first half of the concert and a red one for the second half, possibly mirroring the flavour of her arias. Musically, what struck me was that the singer now seems to have found an even more natural fusion of technique and emotions. One has never doubted Forsythe’s ability to project feelings with a strong edge and candour; I now think she finds a greater range of refined shades and nuances, with a more innocent sweetness and tenderness to mesh with softer, more vulnerable settings. No soprano can be complete without the latter in Handel.
The opening ‘Mio caro Bene’ from Rodelinda immediately established what was in store: Forsythe’s vocal paragraphs beautifully put in place, phrases and runs beguiling, with the emotional tapestry cunningly penetrated. In ‘Se’l mio duoi’ from the same opera, the singer illustrated her ability to push into long legato phrases, and establish a compelling undulating flow. This allowed for great vocal freedom and projection, producing singing that was absolutely vivid when underpinned by her technique. The more extended ‘Plangero’ from Giulio Cesare also had a stellar control of dramatic line. Cultivating a fine suspension, it took the volatile allusions of the opening to a superbly-centered coloratura display, before winding down to a very tender and sweet close notable for its subtle shadings. The famous ‘Da Tempeste’ did not disappoint, featuring the singer’s ability to cut from the dramatic to a lovely creamy sweetness, and to command a myriad of different emotional postures in close proximity. Darker sentiments also pervaded the two arias by Handel’s contemporaries, Nicola’s Porpora's ‘Miseri sventurati’ and Giovanni Bononcini’s ‘Difese mi giurasti’. Forsythe cultivated notable refinement and fluidity in the former (alongside oboe Matthew Jennejohn) and a more tortured white heat in the latter.
What impressed me throughout was how the singer’s technique never dominated her distillation of the feeling in each aria. She always maintained a keen dramatic sense and emotional line even though the characterization was often so ‘fine’ and exact that one might have surmised that each and every note and phrase had been studied intensively to give it precisely the right shading and import. Forsythe’s retreats to a softer, more contemplative fabric were also telling, and each aria highlighted different vocal resources and postures. While the soprano might need some plainer moments in the course of a full opera or oratorio, it did seem revealing that each aria emerged as unique in tone, yet each had a natural cohesion and spontaneity; her intelligent detailing always opened up meaning and variety, and was never distracting.
Alexander Weimann and the Pacific Baroque did a fine job in accompanying, and also introduced orchestral rarities from Handel’s competitors on their own. The concert began with a spirited, tightly-knit account of Johann Adolph Hasse’s Sinfonia to Artaserse, with the orchestra in full virtuoso mode and some excellent rasping horns. This piece seemed a little metrical but would be doubtlessly fun to play. Better was Francesco Maria Veracini’s Violin Concerto, where leader Chloe Myers gave a most able account of the solo part. There was interesting variety in this three-movement piece, though I found the orchestra’s thrusting angularity and strong projection a little excessive at points. Then, we returned to the master, with three slow movements from the Concerto Grosso, op. 3 (set alongside the arias) and a slice of the Water Music. I might have preferred a complete Op. 3 concerto to the selected movements (which seemed too similar), while the four movements of Water Music surfaced as a little too excitable to reveal their full charm; the closing Hornpipe was driven at a hectic pace. Of course, with Amanda Forsythe’s artful virtuosity present, one might expect a conductor to get a little excited.
© Geoffrey Newman 2016