Root, Root, Root for the Divas

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
March 08, 2020

Imagine putting on your game face, donning your fan apparel, gearing up to root for your favorite performer. But you’re not heading to a sports arena. You’re heading to the opera house.

That was how it was in the 18th century, said Conductor Jane Glover in her introduction to Music of the Baroque’s most recent performance, Rival Divas—Handel & Mozart.

There were no major team sports that gathered the masses in those days. Instead, showdowns between leading operatic voices of the day brought out fans who were not shy about expressing their rooting interests.

The rival divas at the Music of the Baroque performance were Susanna Phillips, who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for 12 consecutive years (she has made the role of Musetta in La bohème her own), and Jane Archibald, whose peripatetic international career includes a previous appearance with Music of the Baroque in 2006.

But neither was introduced by her real name. The conceit of the evening’s performance was that the sopranos were performing the roles of pairs of rival divas from the Baroque era.

The first half of the program consisted of segments of four operas by George Frederic Handel: Alessandro, Admeto, Riccardo Primo, and Tolomeo. And the singers impersonated famed Italian sopranos who Handel cast in these operas: Phillips as Francesca Cuzzoni and Archibald as Faustina Bordoni.

The first piece was “Che miri? Che vidi?” from Alessandro, in which the stars played princesses competing for the love of Alexander the Great and expressing their fears that he had been killed (reports of his demise, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated).

The “divas” differed in appearance: Phillips was dark-haired and wearing a shoulder-exposing red dress, Archibald was blonde and wearing a peach-colored gown. And they quickly established their differing styles, Phillips with her passionate, emotional and clean readings, Archibald an expert in coloratura, with its elaborate embellishment of individual notes.

The second half of the performance was music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The singers literally sparkled, with Phillips performing in a silver gown, as Caterina Cavalieri, a pupil (and possibly much more) of Mozart rival Antonio Salieri, and Archibald in gold, as Aloysia Lange. Mozart, according to Glover, had an unrequited crush on Lange, but ended up marrying her sister Constanze.

The segment opened with the orchestra playing the evening’s most familiar piece, the overture to Don Giovanni, heard recently in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s staging of the Mozart opera about the doomed misogynist. Philipps then launched into a gorgeous rendition of “Mi trade quell’alma ingrate,” sung by the character Donna Elvira, in which she laments that Don Giovanni betrayed and abandoned her, but he still makes her heart race with excitement.

Archibald then got her biggest star turn of the evening, applying her trademark coloratura and hitting almost impossible high notes in her performance of Mozart’s concert aria “Vorrel spiegarvi, o Dio.”

Then the fun really started. Throughout the evening, the singers had indicated their rivalry by feigning appreciation for each other, rolling their eyes, yawning, and other derisive expressions. But they really got to let loose with the evening’s final segment, a performance of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirecktor (The Impresario).

This “comedy with music” is a parody of, you guessed it, rival divas, each determined to prove she is best, while the impresario, played by tenor Klaus Georg, tries without success to persuade them to chill out. Here the sopranos truly got to show their acting chops, trying to outdo each other hitting the high notes, imitating each other’s signature style, and doing everything short of physical violence to upstage each other.

The audience at the Harris Theater showed their appreciation for all the performers… politely, unlike those 18th century cheering sections.

Music of the Baroque has two more performances in its 2019-20 schedule. The first, titled À La Française, features music by François Rebel and Jean-Philippe Rameau, is scheduled for Sunday, April 5, at the North Shore Center in Skokie (tickets are $25-85) and Monday, April 6, at the Harris Theater (tickets are $10-85). The guest conductor is Patrick Dupré Quigley, who also conducted the ensemble’s amazing Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts in December.

The season’s finale is Musica Sacra, featuring sacred music by Antonio Vivaldi, Gregorio Allegri, William Byrd and Henry Purcell. These concerts take place Sunday, May 17, at Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook (tickets are $35-85) and Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile (tickets are $35-85).

Music of the Baroque has also released its schedule for its 50th anniversary season, which runs from September 13 through May 10, 2021. The schedule can be viewed on Music of the Baroque’s website.