Watching the audience’s effusive response to soprano Amanda Forsythe’s blazing coloratura at the end of Music of the Baroque’s Classical Heroines concert Monday at Chicago’s Harris Theater, it is easy to imagine solo vocalists of the 18th century as precursors to today’s rock stars.
Forsythe had already made three well-received appearances on stage, with Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas Kraemer leading the orchestra while contributing on the harpsichord. Forsythe then sent the attendees home on a high note—many high notes, actually—with her vocal gymnastics on the aria “Da tempeste” from George Frederic Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare.
This is not the Julius Caesar of the Shakespearean tragedy, in which he meets his bloody end in the Roman Senate. Instead, the plot revolves around the romance between Caesar and Cleopatra amid murderous intrigue in the Egyptian royal court. Persuaded that Caesar died trying to escape from assassins, Cleopatra is in mourning that turns to jubilation when Caesar turns up alive, prompting her “Da tempeste” aria.
Forsythe expressed the joy in the piece with vocal embellishments, facial expressions and body language, and some in the audience practically leapt to their feet upon the final note.
It was a bit of an unusual program for Music of the Baroque; while all the composers featured are in the pantheon of the Baroque music world, none of the pieces performed were among their most familiar. This approach has its virtues, but it may have contributed to the less-than-full house at Monday’s concert.
It opened with the orchestra performing the Overture from Handel’s opera Agrippina, a brief piece with a notable clarinet solo. The therebo, the ginormous strummed instrument that looks like a lute on steroids, made the first of several appearances during the concert.
Forsythe’s first solo, from Scena di Berenice by Joseph Hadyn, was filled with drama as the title character laments her desperation over her forbidden love of the son of the man to whom she is betrothed. Her flawless high notes signaled that this would be a special evening.
The performance of incidental music and songs from Handel’s Alceste began with three instrumental segments, then Forsythe returned to sing the gorgeous aria “Gentle Morpheus, son of night.” A similar scenario occurred after the intermission, with Henry Purcell’s instrumental Chacony in G Minor—performed only by strings and Kraemer’s harpsichord—followed by Forsythe singing the aria of lament from the end of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
Forsythe took a break while the orchestra performed Hadyn’s Symphony No. 11 in E-flat Major. While listening to Haydn is always a pleasure, it’s not clear how that fit into the theme of Baroque heroines.
In an unusual touch, the symphony begins with a slow, drama-infused (Adagio cantabile) movement, but gains momentum through its Allegro 2nd movement, Menuetto con Trio 3rd movement, and Presto final movement. This set the stage for Forsyth’s curtain call with the electrifying “Da tempeste.”
A concert deeply rooted in the past opened with a glimpse of Music of the Baroque’s near future: Kraemer and executive director Declan McGovern gave a rundown of the ensemble’s 2022-23 program schedule.
Highlights include a concert focused on Baroque Heroes (a counterpoint to this week’s concert), the always memorable Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts, performances by solo vocalist Reginald Mobley and piano virtuoso Gabriela Montero, and the long-awaited performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of Music of the Baroque’s 2020-21 50th anniversary celebration that was disrupted by the COVID pandemic.
The full 2022-23 schedule can be viewed on the Music of the Baroque website.
The 2021-22 season continues with Bach’s Easter Oratorio, to be performed at 7:30pm on Sunday, April 10, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and on Monday, April 11, at the Harris Theater. Tickets for the Skokie concert, priced at $35-$95, can be purchased by clicking here; tickets for the Chicago concert, priced $25-$95, can be purchased by clicking here.