This week the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and conductor Nicholas McGegan will present Handel's oratorio, Alexander's Feast. There will be four performances beginning Thursday, 4/19, in Atherton at the Center for Performing Arts; Friday, 4/20, in San Francisco at the Herbst Theatre; and Saturday and Sunday, 4/21-22, in Berkeley at the First Congregational Church. At its Covent Garden premiere on Sunday, 19 February 1736, the performance was followed by a celebration of fireworks. At the concerts this week, the fireworks will be confined to the orchestra and the fine members of the cast. I spoke recently with one of its brightest stars, PBO's most favored and fiery soprano, Dominique Labelle.
Dominique Labelle is on a short list of today's truly great vocal interpreters of Baroque Music. She has an extended and vibrant history with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and has collaborated with other conductors including Iván Fischer, Jos van Veldhoven, and the Pulitzer Prize winning composer Yehudi Wyner. She also treasures her long association with the late Robert Shaw. On April 12th she appeared at Carnegie Hall in Handel's Messiah with conductor Iván Fischer and in Seattle at Daniels Recital Hall for Handels The Triumph of Truth and Time. With the resurgence of interest in early music, Dominique Labelle is at the top of her game and busier than ever.
"I studied voice at McGill University which offered studies in early music," she said. "I loved my Song Interpretation class. We worked on literature in French, German, Czech and Russian and performed a cycle together. That was amazing. We also had a Contemporary Ensemble and worked in a recording studio. There were four different choruses, so there was always an opportunity for me as a young singer to audition for all the small soprano roles. I had a lot of exposure to all kinds of music."
As a professional vocal coach, I know there is a special kind of soprano that latches on to Baroque music. There is something in their spirit that responds to the sounds of the 18th Century – including the phrasing and ornamentation, and a host of other demands distinct from later composers such as Puccini and Verdi. Baroque is more exacting.
"That's a very good observation," she responded. "Sometimes I wonder why I didn't wind up doing more opera. I did Puccini and Verdi, I sang La Traviata and Lucia – all those Italian roles. But the people who kept hiring me were doing early music or oratorio. I can't really say if I was not talented to do Puccini or because it's just Life that basically carries you where you're supposed to go. I also have to say that my relationship with Philharmonia Baroque is a good one. I've been working with them for many years. I know the musicians and they want to make music with me. A lot of singers have a very different attitude when they show up in front of an orchestra. They are The Voice and the orchestra is accompanying them. For me, I always come as part of the music. I can play the role of a Diva, but I always approach the music as a musician."
Alexander's Feast emerges in 1697 as an ode by John Dryden. The subject deals with the burning of the city of Persepolis by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. In the course of the story, Alexander's female companion, Thais, a "hetera" from Greece – a sort-of sacred/dedicated sometimes sexual companion for hire who was likewise versed in music, the arts and political rhetoric – encourages the flamboyant general to set fire to the palace and, thus, settle an overdue round of vengeance. It is interesting to note that Dryden included "or The Power of Music" as a sub-title to his Alexander's Feast, the ode having been written in honor of Saint Cecilia, patroness of music.
"As I'm looking at the score," she said, "my music is listed as Soprano Solo. There's no specific character. I think with Alexander's Feast you don't pass a judgement. Basically, you just sing. It's not required of you to take a position on anything, such as, "I can't believe I'm feeling this way" or "Everybody should be happy". I think the emotions have to be coming from the music and you are a part of it. There is a lot of beautiful music in the score. There is one piece that is very funny. The Prince is looking at the woman's breasts – for about four minutes:
'The prince, unable to conceal his pain,
Gaz'd on the fair
Who caus'd his care,
And sigh'd and look'd, sigh'd and look'd,
Sigh'd and look'd, and sigh'd again:
At length, with love and wine at once oppress'd,
The vanquish'd victor sunk upon her breast.'
What do you have to do as a singer to make this piece funny and interesting? There's no judgement, nobody saying, "How terrible of him to be staring at this woman's breasts!"
I responded with, "Well, if it were me singing, then I would be appealing to everyone out in the audience fixated on my chest! In other words, for four minutes, I couldn't say or sing the same words the same way to just everyone."
"Exactly! That's where your knowledge of music comes in. Like with my little brush when I paint – you have to use it very well. When am I going to look surprised, where can I use a longer note to express excitement or boredom? This is where you apply your musical expertise in making choices."
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has just released a full-length recording of Handel's 1736 opera, Atalanta, with Dominique Labelle as the Arcadian princess known for her athleticism and long-standing virginity. It is a live performance recording produced in 2005 at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. Soprano Susanne Rydén is in the trouser role of "Meleagro", the King of Etolia – likewise in disguise. Also featured are mezzo-soprano Cécile van de Sant as "Irene", tenor Michael Slattery as "Aminta", baritone Philip Cutlip as "Nicandro", and baritone Corey McKern as "Mercurio".
Dominique is keeping a very busy and prestigious schedule these days having appeared on April 12th at Carnegie Hall in the Mozart Requiem conducted by Iván Fischer. Prior to that she was in Montreal performing The Messiah and in Seattle at Daniels Recital Hall for Handel's The Triumph of Time and Truth. With that kind of itinerary and shifting from one time zone to another, I asked Dominique about her practice schedule.
"Pretty much everyday. I work very hard on my warm-up. A lot of singers show up to rehearsals without having practiced and I'm always so surprised. You have to be in contact with your instrument – all the fine tuning, working the consonants and vowels, the breath control, making sure your high notes are beautifully placed – before you begin making music. The pure exercise of it, physically and mentally. You have to know what you're doing beforehand or you will focus only on the technical problems. A good fifteen minutes of very focused warming-up is very important, then you sing for thirty or forty minutes. Everyday."
But Dominique's personal warm-up is informed by a life-time of study and performance opportunities. She understands how to exercise her voice effectively so that she is ready to rehearse with an orchestra or to learn new material for a future engagement.
"When did you start practicing the aria from Alexander's Feast?"
"About two weeks ago. I know what I have to do with this music and I've done it with Nic many times. So, it's not new and it's not going to be that difficult. In the first aria, I have to sustain a very long High A. I've been singing it in my head everyday for the last three weeks. When it comes time to perform it, I will know exactly what kind of mental work to do to make that note work."
It is very clear that Dominique loves working with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. She will be back with them again on June 3rd at the Berkeley Festival in a program of songs by Beethoven and Haydn.
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