Jupiter in the Singles Bar
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
George Frederic Handel:Jupiter In Argos
Elizabeth Futral (Calisto), Kristine Jepson (Iside), Heidi Grant Murphy (Diana), Rufus Müller (Jupiter), Valerian Ruminsky (Licaone), Wayne Gigges (Erasto)
Collegiate Chorale, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Robert Bass (Conductor)
The American premiere of any opera by George Frederic Handel calls for an “Alleluja”. When the chorus itself is the Collegiate Chorale, one can easily add an “Amen.” New York’s favorite large choral force does squeeze out of real Handelian dimensions—unlike the St. Luke’s Orchestra—but its massive sounds were a pleasure to hear.
Yet what was this “new” opera? Actually, Jupiter in Argos, for an undiscovered work, has been christened in at least four different ways. It was called an “opera” upon its unsuccessful premiere in 1739. Handel, though, also called it a “dramatic representation”, which means that it might have been a concert version. One could also call it a “Pastorale”, since it takes place in Arcadia, with the usual representation of nymphs, divine hunters and a lecherous Jupiter.
But musically, Jupiter in Argos is one of three Handel “pasticcios”. Mentioning to several New Yorkers that I was going to a pasticcio inevitably generated the response they preferred walnuts. But these “pastiches” of old music from several different composers in a new piece was a common practice.
The best-known example is Beggar’s Opera, which quotes from a dozen different composers, including Handel himself. But this Italian “opera” is 90 percent Handel. And in this abridged version, the arias of an Italian composer were deleted (as well as various repeats of the solos). I am not scholarly enough to identify the sources, but some of the music did sound familiar.
One must remark first of all that it is very very amiable music. The choruses were full-bodied and unproblematic. The Act III chorus contrasted a trio of female voices with the whole chorus could have rivaled the female chorus in Bach’s Magnificat. The solos were equally luscious, virtually half of them employing the most difficult coloratura trills, roulades and runs up the scale, which for the sopranos ran high above high C. The Handel-sized St. Luke’s orchestra emphasized mainly strings (along with a large lute-like theorbo and a pair of horns) with subtle careful music.
One usually finds the Arcadian plots of these works forgettable, but at almost two-and-a-half-hours, one did try to follow the plot. The dealings with a runaway king, a woman who wants to kill him, his daughter who wants to find him, a Wonder Woman-like sect of virgins run by Diana the Huntress and (almost incidentally) a bear in the third act, is hardly Shakespeare (or even Dryden).
Yet all of this hangs around Jupiter, King of the Gods. And he acts like he’s in a New York singles bar. To the would-be killer, Iside, he utters the most flagrant pickup lines, saying he’ll help her kill the tyrant if she’ll sleep with him. Then to the tyrant’s daughter, Calisto, he tries the same pickup trick, saying he will save her father if she only….well, makes a quick roll in the hay.
Singles bar stuff continues into sitcom, when both women meet Jupiter at the same place, and he has to excuse himself quite feebly. Being King of the Gods is not all peaches, cream and pasticcio nuts.
Finally we come to the Collegiate Chorale production. That chorus sung lustily, clearly, with the right fervor, whether it was about happiness, love, fate or the other eternal verities of this genre. As for the soloists, I could not even imagine anything but plaudits, lauds and acclaim for each one of them. The two rival sopranos, Kritine Jepson and Elizabeth Furtral, took their bravura arias with the greatest of ease and—more important—voices which rang with 18th Century purity. Heidi Grant Murphy, as Diana, had a darker more dramatic voice, but she was the one virago here.
I never though of Jupiter as a tenor, but Rufus Müller filled the bill, as did Valerian Ruminsky the tyrant and Wayne Gigges as the supposedly cuckolded Orestes.
Most credit of all goes to Robert Bass, the Collegiate Chorale conductor who achieved the most subtle sounds from the orchestra and the heartiest sounds of the chorus. As one aria has it, “Pleasure is always in the air.”