One would be hard pressed to find anywhere (and within the same 48 hours) the quantity and quality of Baroque splendors lavished on Portland last weekend. Portland Baroque Orchestra offered Handel's dramatic oratorio, Messiah, while Trinity Consort had not just Bach, Corelli and Mondonville on tap, but plenteous post-concert wassail. Different composers, different concerts, but the same message: "Comfort ye." And did we ever.
For all the reasons Messiah was unpopular after its 1742 Dublin premiere, it now rules. The Old and New Testament verses Handel used, far from being too sacrosanct for the concert hall, as its original auditors complained, lend themselves superbly to the immortal tunes and stirring drama with which he clothed them. In fact, Handel's genius for theater raised Messiah above all denominational particularities to embrace the basic human need to believe death is not an end but merely a "change." PBO guest conductor Richard Egarr obviously understands this completely, for the Messiah he gave us Friday night in First Baptist Church was truly an impassioned pairing of opera and prayer.
Egarr also proved that one steeped in early music tradition can welcome adjustments for the sake of dramatic effect--undoubtedly a byproduct of his work in opera's more spontaneous atmosphere. No poker-faced pedantry here, but interpretation engendered in and expressed through human emotions; no ridiculously racing tempos, but a relaxed, sensual feel for phrasing and mood. Egarr's exuberance, vivid coloring and flexible rhythms were reflected not just by the orchestra but by the PBO Chorus and four soloists: soprano Ann Monoyios, mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin, tenor David Vanderwal and bass Peter Becker. Robbin's Part Two aria, "He was despised," in which noble restraint commingled strikingly with very real pathos, was especially memorable.
First-class soloists were also on hand Saturday night for Trinity Consort's "Baroque Christmas" in Trinity Cathedral. Guest soprano Stéphanie Révidat, mezzo-soprano Lisa Actor, tenor Marc Molomot and bass Curtis Streetman, with the Trinity Consort under artistic director Eric J. Milnes and the excellent Trinity Chamber Singers, performed Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville's 1740 grand motet, "Venite exultemus deo" ("Come let us praise the Lord") and selections from Bach's Christmas Oratorio.
Mondonville's motet, like Handel's Messiah, is opera cloaked in biblical text, full of atmospheric arias and lovely choral writing. It benefited from Milnes' trademark treatment: strongly inflected rhythms, astringent pacing, angles instead of arches. Révidat's sweetly yearning soprano was particularly effective here, but Streetman's commanding bass and Molomot's athletic, gleaming tenor also gave cause for admiration. If there was a "fault" in the overall scheme of the program, it was the paradoxical one of hyper-perfection delivered with utter consistency--hard to make a case against that, but there it is. On the other hand, Corelli's Christmas Concerto, with concertmaster Rob Diggins leading the pack, warmly benefited from a more limber approach--as nice a way to start the evening as the wassail party (which a deadline-hounded journalist had to forgo) was to end it.
Portland Baroque Orchestra's Messiah
First Baptist Church, 909 SW 11th Ave., 222-6000. Friday, Dec. 14.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Ave., 222-9811. Saturday, Dec. 15.