On March 5, the concert in the Foellinger Great Hall was entitled “Venice Baroque Orchestra: The Swedish Nightingale.”
A week or two earlier, the New York Times published an article by Christopher Corwin titled “Is This the Best Opera Singer You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of?” The singer was the Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, and, truth to tell, it was likely that most of the audience in Foellinger had never heard of her.
Now in her early 50s, her career had almost entirely been spent in Europe. Her rare appearances in the U.S. have been highly praised, and her specialty is singing roles in the operas of George Frederik Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. This baroque branch of opera is gradually winning fans, but it has yet to represent a large portion of the general opera repertory.
Hallenberg’s first aria was “Doppo l’orrore” (“After the horror”) from Handel’s opera “Ottone,” and therein she showed a flexible, highly expressive voice. The aria by Pietro Torri (1650-1737), “Quando il flebile usignolo” (“When the mournful nightingale”) from the opera “L’Ippolito,” had Hallenberg imitating the song of a nightingale, and here she achieved a tone of sweet sadness, but the da capo aria seemed to go on and on. The following Vivaldi aria, “Gelido in ogni vena” (“Freezing in every vein”) from “Il Farnace” (Pharnaces II of Pontus, c. 97-47 B.C.), had Hallenberg’s voice rise across an impressive range to a high note close to a scream. By this time, the audience was warming up to Hallenberg, but the dam broke after she sang an aria, in Latin, “Armatae face et anguibus” (“Armored with torch and snakes”) from the Vivaldi oratorio “Juditha triumphans.” Expressing rage with sharp, jabbing vocal attacks, Hallenberg executed Vivaldi’s vocal pyrotechnics to a brilliant conclusion.
After intermission, Hallenberg went on to another aria of heated passion in “Crude Furie” (“Cruel rage”) from Handel’s “Serse.” In the next aria, “Veni, o figlio” (“Come, my son”), we were at last treated to a melting Handelian melody which Hallenberg shaped with lovely pulsing phrases. Her last aria on the program was by Riccardo Broschi, (1698-1756) “Son qual nave” (“I am like a ship”) from “Artaserse,” with a rousing vocal line, and a surging ending that brought cheers from the standing audience.
The encores were listed in the program, and the first was the aria, “In braccio a mille furie” (“In thrall to a thousand furies”), from “Semiramide riconosciuta” (“Semiramis Recognized”) by Nicola Porpora (1686-1756), which drew from Hallenberg a rapid, spot-on delivery. After more cheers, she sang her second and last encore, the lovely and famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga,” (“Let me weep”) with pleasing, appealing charm from Handel’s opera “Rinaldo.”
Clearly, the concert was a triumph for Hallenberg. But the Venice Baroque Orchestra, urgently led by concertmaster Giampiero Zanocco, also had a fine evening in playing with idiomatic brilliance a succession of Vivaldi’s concertos for strings, as well as in their sensitive support for Hallenberg in her succession of arias. I especially enjoyed the Vivaldi Concerto in D Major, RV 121, and the Concerto for Strings in C Major, RV 114, in both of which there was distinctive playing by lute player Ivano Zanenghi.
By the way, you can enjoy choice examples of Hallenberg’s singing, as well as the playing of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, on YouTube.
There was, however, one puzzle that hung over the evening. In Krannert’s season brochure, this concert had been billed as a tribute to “The Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, who, sponsored by P. T. Barnum, had a spectacular success in touring America in 1850 to 1852. But no mention of Lind was given in the program.
In answer to Corwin’s question, quoted above, let me say that Ann Hallenberg may have entered the Foellinger stage a stranger, but she left behind memories not soon forgotten.